Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wikipedia: educational curse or blessing?

Ah, the world of Wikipedia:

"...in a recent piece on Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the New York Review of Books critic Martin Filler made several factual errors. When the architect complained, Filler petulantly replied, “I am surprised that for someone so concerned about his image and the spread of misinformation, neither Koolhaas nor his office has bothered to correct his Wikipedia entry.” (Adams, Cecil, "Is Wikipedia more reliable than the Encyclopaedia Britannica?")

Anyone who follows Wikipedia stories sees stuff like this all the time.  The site sometimes seems to have turned the world upside down. 

That said, I think that there is a lot to appreciate about Wikipedia.  After all, where else can you read about every episode from the Star Trek series, just to satisfy your curiosity?  And as Cecil Adams says, what better place to go to settle bar bets?

Seriously though, what about the world of formal education?  What kind of place does Wikipedia have there? 

I think educators should be imaginative when it comes to using Wikipedia with their students.  In fact, I gave a talk attempting to show just how useful Wikipedia could be to educators* (based on this paper ; slide show here).  As Adams points out, Wikipedia is a great place for "getting an initial fix on a serious research subject" - or, in other words, getting "your bearings" or "the lay of the land".  Wikipedia also has strict rules about writing entries using information from [primary and secondary] sources generally considered to be reliable, so the citations and endnotes at the bottom of the page can also be good places to get started with research.  The recently produced infographic above gives you a sense of what people are citing in Wikipedia ("MySpace" and "Facebook" are probably used for popular bands - the citing of search engines is more problematic).

As Adams notes about the goals of "Wikipedians", "providing a starting point for further investigation is all nondelusional Wikipedia editors aspire to accomplish."

In other words, Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is great for "presearch" - but, of course, a terrible place to end.  Adams again: "The problem is when even those who know better rely on Wikipedia as the last step rather than the first in finding the facts."

So, is it ever OK to cite a Wikipedia entry?  As a general rule of thumb, no.  But I would suggest that if you are a recognized authority on a particular topic (few of us, I know) and come across an entry in Wikipedia that beautifully sums up some actual knowledge that you have, citing it, in this instance, can be very appropriate.  It all has to do with having more advanced knowledge.  And of course, most people who have this knowledge are constantly going beyond Wikipedia - and the internet, for that matter. 

* - for a) developing solid research skills, b) thinking critically about the nature of authority and evidence, and c) producing persuasive written and oral arguments (guidance needed of course)   

Image credit: http://gizmodo.com/5929207/the-top-50-sources-where-wikipedia-gets-its-facts