“Wikipedia deserves the same place in most modern assignments that Britannica did in most of ours.”
This plea doesn’t apply to the teachers (or administrators, for that matter) who have figured out that Wikipedia is an incredible knowledge store, cornucopia of primary sources, and go-to site for most the free world. Rather, this plea is for those who, instead of teaching students about Internet site credibility, fact checking, verification, and crowdsourcing, choose to simply prohibit the use of Wikipedia.
Two of my kids were assigned papers within the last week and told they could use any sources other than Wikipedia. Seriously. Because apparently, the first three hits on Google are outstanding information sources.
I know Wikipedia is scary. It has pictures of genitals, deviant behavior, piercings, and virtually every other item that we block with sophisticated content filters in our schools. So does the rest of the Internet, in infinitely cruder and more explicit settings. You know what Wikipedia has that the nether regions of the Internet do not, though? Citations. References. Links to further reading and verifiable primary sources. And when it doesn’t, it has a nice little box at the top of the entry explaining why it doesn’t meet Wikipedia standards.
Wouldn’t it make far more sense to encourage students to use Wikipedia, cite it appropriately, and then insist that they also use X number of linked primary sources? How much more valuable would it be for a kid writing a report on Mars to not only read about it in relatively straightforward terms on Wikipedia and then also read a relatively obscure website put together by an MIT scientist on Martian climate issues?
Trust me. When that same kid Google’s “Mars”, he’s not going to find Jason Goodman’s views on the possibilities of terraforming Mars based on his understanding of areography or his current research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And how much more interesting would that same kid’s poster presentation to the class be if he’d talked to Dr. Goodman about his theories? It only took a few clicks out of Wikipedia to find his mailing address at Woods Hole. Why not send a letter? Or (gasp!) an email?
Here’s the problem with prohibiting the use of Wikipedia: We all use it anyway. Look up just about any new term, word, or expression in the search engine of your choice, and the Wikipedia entry for that term will be the first hit. And usually it’s not only spot on but gives you the information you need immediately.
Yet all that junk that we worry about on Wikipedia also gets used by students who haven’t been taught to correctly verify sources or to understand the reliability of web materials. Without a thorough understanding of its powers, pitfalls, and how to determine both, students won’t be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Some assignments are designed to focus on a particular type of research or learning. If you want your students to know the ins and outs of Lexis Nexis, then obviously they should be sourcing Lexis Nexis. If you want them to do original historical research, then microfilms of old newspapers are usually a quick library trip away. Wikipedia probably doesn’t have a place in these assignments.
However, Wikipedia deserves the same place in most modern assignments that Britannica did in most of ours. It was a starting point and a collection of additional references for our research. It gave us the general background we needed to dig further. Wikipedia does the same, with remarkable reliability given the success of the crowdsourcing model. Wikipedia, however, makes most of those primary sources and deeper research possibilities available within just a few clicks. We don’t need to teach our kids not to use Wikipedia. We need to teach them to make those extra few clicks and decide for themselves if the Wikipedia entry has merit. It’s a skill that is broadly applicable in an age of information overload and Google’s billions of search results.