Dr. Waleslove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Wikipedia
Last week, I had the opportunity to share some ideas on technology integration with some pre-service college students. I mentioned that I liked the idea of using Wikipedia as the starting point for many of my online searches. They quickly pointed out that many of their professors discourage, and in some cases attempt to prohibit, the use of Wikipedia as a research tool.
It’s the same at the K-12 level:
You can’t trust Wikipedia. Anyone can change anything so you shouldn’t use it.
There are even some who configure their internet filters to block Wikipedia access.
Almost ten years old, Wikipedia has had its ups and downs. Back in 2000, Jimmy Wales began thinking about a way of creating an open, collaborative, online encyclopedia that could be edited quickly. He settled on using a wiki format that would allow members of the public to contribute material and on January 10, 2001, Wikipedia came online. According to Alexia.com, it is now the sixth most accessed web site in the world.
It is, of course, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia that bothers some. But it is this very feature that makes Wikipedia so powerful. Following the Hudson River crash of US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, the Wikipedia community quickly began posting information about the incident. Much of the earliest data in the article was incorrect and incomplete but it was the ability of Wikipedia to be edited that allowed the crash article to quickly and accurately provide details.
A recent article in Education Week by Matthew Shapiro does an excellent job of addressing teacher concerns about Wikipedia. I especially like his reference to research done several years ago:
Maybe you are thinking that Wikipedia is fine for answering a few pesky questions, but for classroom research it cannot compare to the gold standard of encyclopedic wisdom: the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Actually, it can. A recent study, published in Nature, showed that for every four errors found in Wikipedia, there were three errors found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Yet that study was conducted in 2005, and since then those same Wikipedia entries have been subjected to intense online scrutiny. Each entry is assigned a discussion board to resolve disputes, and particularly contentious battles can be resolved by “admins.” These online arguments can actually improve the quality of the information.
Shapiro cites a University of Washington study that says 82% of college students use Wikipedia as part of the research. So why should we as teachers care? Can’t we just refuse to accept any Wikipedia-based research, make them do it over, hand out zeros?
Shapiro suggests that
Our students are constantly bombarded by spurious information from a 21st-century arsenal composed of 24-hour news networks, blogs, online newspapers, and even YouTube. As teachers, we can vainly attempt to shield our students from an ever-growing information storm, or we can help them acquire the skills to navigate through it.
Part of those skills involve making judgment calls about the quality and reliability of any information source – online or off. One simple method some use asks kids to go through the five W’s to help them form good questions about information sources:
- who – author
- what – data format (text, photo, audio, video)
- where – source of information, citations
- when – date written / modified
- why – audience or purpose
You can have students compare Wikipedia articles to Encyclopaedia Britannica (and other sources), looking for differences. Train students by looking for bias in Wikipedia articles on political parties, controversial topics or sports teams. Have students research and create their own Wikipedia article and track changes, both correct and incorrect, that are made to “their” article.
Many Wikipedia articles also have extensive bibliographies and links to other sites, students can often find additional resources for their research. Wikipedia articles can aid in selecting topics for research by providing overviews of different subjects.
Shapiro is right. We can bury our heads in the sand or we can “help them acquire the skills” to manage an ever-growing mountain of data.