June 26

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Yes! Your Students Should Use Wikipedia! (Sorta)

We’ve been telling students for years not to use Wikipedia.  Some of us have gone so far as to equate the use of Wikipedia with cheating, implying to students that using the resource was a sign of intellectual weakness.  If that’s the case, why has Wikipedia become one of the most popular and often used research resources in the world?  Moreover, why is it more popular with highly educated people?

Sure, Wikipedia is a wiki, which means that anyone with a computer can alter or add to an entry.  Heck, any old shmoe living in his parents’ basement can create an entry designating himself one of the great civil rights leaders of the sixties.  We can check out accounts of Wikipedia taking action against abuse, but we can find an equal number of accounts of that abuse escaping attention.  Isn’t it dangerous to encourage or even allow our students to use a resource open to this sort of fraud and error?

Not at all.  In fact, you should encourage your students to use Wikipedia when doing research.  In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Duke University professor Cathy Davidson argues that Wikipedia is no less prone to error than regular encyclopedias, a fact borne out by comparative studies.  Further, she echoes others when she recommends that instead of following a non-reflective, knee-jerk ban of the resource, teachers should “make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study.”  Davidson wants us not only to allow students to use the source, but also to teach them how to use it responsibly.

Here’s how: Students should not shy away from Wikipedia pages when they show up on searches.  Rather, they should read through them to gather a basic understanding of an issue.  This will help a student develop a firm grounding in a topic before proceeding, a strategy so useful and safe that Harvard recommends it.  This step will help a student generate research questions and answer simple ones.  After doing this, the student can then search elsewhere for more reliable information or, better yet, use the Wikipedia page.  A good Wikipedia page offers links through the text and at the bottom that can provide reliable research for a student.  They read the entry, scroll to the bottom, visit a link, and hit paydirt on research.  This is sound research in the 21st century.

Let’s say I’m researching black holes.  I open the Wikipedia page and find four paragraphs of definition.  The first paragraph alone boasts five footnotes citing the information in the paragraph.  It also provides links to Wikipedia pages on several related concepts, such as spacetime and general relativity.  These first few paragraphs alone take me time to pour through, and they offer a quality of information that is actually higher than a comparable encyclopedia.

Once I’ve finished reading about black holes, I scroll down to look at the references.  The page offers 131 scholarly references on the subject, from papers published by Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to more recent works in peer-reviewed journals.  Below that, I find a list of popular book-length references, such as Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps.  This list of references is massive and offers a better opportunity to find specific research than a simple Google search.  In fact, if anything, the Wikipedia page has overloaded me with quality information.  From this page alone, I have accessed a basic understanding of the science concept as well as a list of scholarly references for further study.  It’s the very definition of research.

But students still can’t cite that page as research, can they?  Of course not!  Let’s remind ourselves of the second part of Wikipedia’s name, the -pedia part.  Wikipedia is a type of encyclopedia, and a general one at that, just like the good old Britannica.  That means it provides general understanding on a wide variety of topics.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself said that people should not cite any encyclopedia as research.  That’s not the function of an encyclopedia.  You should still refuse to allow direct citation of evidence from Wikipedia, reminding students that they can only cite the more specific sources found through the reference links.

We teachers can continue this damaging battle against Wikipedia, but we will lose, and our loss will show our refusal to understand or adapt to the way the world organizes, shares, and processes information today.  If we do not accept Wikipedia, understand it, and help our students use it as the effective research tool it is, we will be a hindrance to their development as participants in modern communities of discussion.  Let’s refuse to stick with the dogma of a decade past.  Let’s embrace Wikipedia.