In a not so black and white world

by Tina Hovekamp, Library


For the last two years, Martha Groom, Associate Professor at the University of Washington has been using Wikipedia for her classes requiring her students to submit articles to the popular, user-generated internet encyclopedia as part of their assignment. An article discussing Groom’s  original teaching approach, cites one of her students commenting, “This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research.”

And then there is the battle of Colbert vs. Wikipedia:

So, is Wikipedia  a valuable resource to promote in our classes?  Last year I asked my LIB127 students to try a search on a topic of their interest in order to compare results in Britannica versus Wikipedia. It was the first time I included such a question in their assignment, not knowing exactly what their responses could be. Well, I have to admit, their answers were an eye opener, a good number of them quite well-thought making it difficult for me to dismiss as inaccurate or irrelevant. Here is one of them, an example of what students may often experience searching and comparing such two tools, an “academic” one and another from the “fee” web world:

“I choose to look up schizoaffective disorder which is a psychiatric diagnosis describing a condition where both the symptoms of a mood disorder and schizophrenia are present.  When I searched for schizoaffective on wikipedia [a pertinent result] came up; however, when I put the same thing in on Britannica Online it showed no results.  I had to look up both mental disorder and schizophrenia which was somewhat frustrating.  I also found the wikipedia information to be much more in depth and helpful than the Britannica Online information…  If I had to choose an article to go with for this research topic it would definitely be the one at Wikipedia.”

I have to admit, even being a librarian doesn’t sometimes stop me from agreeing with my students that “traditional” encyclopedic sources such as Britannica or Oxford Reference Online, both of them databases our library subscribes to, may often fail to be as comprehensive or extensive as Wikipedia. Even the display of results and layout of Wikipedia are often much more user-friendly with features such as the inclusion of links to other terms or to other entries which I found useful in so many occasions, especially when doing quick searches.

wikibabel4While helping patrons at the reference desk or in the classroom, I often hear instructors and students summarily dismiss the use of Wikipedia. I myself also tell my students that although Wikipedia could be a decent tool for getting general information on a topic, I wouldn’t use it as one of my cited sources in a research paper; but then, again, I wouldn’t use Britannica either as one of my cited sources for a college level research project. I guess the main difference most people agree on in using Wikipedia versus other more traditional sources is that since the authorship of the Wikipedia articles is unclear, students needing to use the information for a research paper have to take the extra step of finding other more “official” verification of the accuracy of the information. But is this a reason to completely discourage its use? A few years ago a study published in Nature already found that rates and problems of accuracy between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica can actually be quite comparable. Interestingly, Wikipedia itself offers a caveat for its use in research projects:

“As with any source, especially one of unknown authorship, you should be wary and independently verify the accuracy of Wikipedia information if possible. For many purposes, but particularly in academia, Wikipedia may not be an acceptable source;[1] indeed, some professors and teachers may reject Wikipedia-sourced material completely. This is especially true when it is used uncorroborated.

We advise special caution when using Wikipedia as a source for research projects. Normal academic usage of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias is for getting the general facts of a problem and to gather keywords, references and bibliographical pointers, but not as a source in itself. Remember that Wikipedia is a wiki, which means that anyone in the world can edit an article, deleting accurate information or adding false information, which the reader may not recognize.”

Wikipedia seems to have given this issue some thought. But despite its own disclaimer, in a world already dominated by Google and wikis, perhaps the best approach to take may be something similar to Groom’s course assignment that actually embraces the power and benefits of tools such as Wikipedia. Regardless of where information is coming from, being a critical consumer, always looking for ways to validate the quality of what’s been passed on to us is perhaps much more important rather than prescribing the exact rules of what specific tools to use or avoid.

David Parry, assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, last year had an interesting article on this topic, “Wikipedia and the New Curriculum: Digital Literacy Is Knowing How We Store What We Know” (February 2008).  Here’s a quote:

“It is irresponsible for educational institutions not to teach new knowledge technologies such as Wikipedia… digital literacy is so crucial for educational institutions: we do a fundamental disservice to our students if we continue to propagate old methods of knowledge creation and archivization without also teaching them how these structures are changing, and, more importantly, how they will relate to knowledge creation and dissemination in a fundamentally different way.”

What do you think?  Should we rethink Wikipedia’s role in our classes?


One Response to In a not so black and white world

  1. Stacey says:

    On a related note, here is a story of The Guardian newspaper being duped by a deliberately falsified Wikipedia entry:

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