The use of Wikipedia in higher education
For all the concerns of journalists decrying how the web will eliminate the gatekeeper function of traditional media, it has become clear to me over the past two days that the New York Times still has a major market share of the public consciousness. Since the article on Wikipedia was published, I’ve gotten many emails & phone calls concerning my (briefly) expressed opinions about the site, and my teaching with technology. Some have been quite interesting – for instance, the CEO of DotSub called to walk me through his company’s impressive online video subtitling software that functions similarly to wikis, so check it out! – while others have been more cranky. What I realized though is that I need more than an abbreviated quotation in the article to offer my perspective – thankfully I have this nifty blog as a tool to inflict my ideas upon the world! So if you can’t attend the Great Debate at Middlebury on Monday the 26th, or don’t want to wait for a recording of the event to show up here sometime next week, here’s a brief overview of my take on Wikipedia and higher education, and a link to my Media Technology course which will be using wikis, blogs, and other bells & whistles of contemporary media:
(Although I should note, in the spirit of Web 2.0, I take no ownership of this position as author or originator. Many other people, more articulate than I, have argued such positions. Just nobody else at Middlebury that I know of…)
First, here’s the History department’s policy [updated through personal communication, not peer editing]:
Whereas Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes, extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation. Therefore be it resolved that students in all history classes be informed early in each term through additions to syllabi and to senior thesis instructions that: 1) Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors. 2) Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.
My take beneath the fold…
Wikipedia needs to be understood as belonging to two distinct categories: a wiki and an encyclopedia. For me, the latter is more troubling – encyclopedias are resources designed to synthesize already established knowledge, tertiary sources that summarize secondary scholarship and primary documents. No encyclopedia belongs as a citation in a serious research paper at the college level (unless the paper is about encyclopedias as resources!) – an encyclopedia is a fine place to start your research to provide background info or point toward further reading, but research must go much further than an encyclopedia, whether it’s Wikipedia or Britannica (or a specialized volume like The Encyclopedia of Television). So by Middlebury’s History department explicitly barring Wikipedia citations without mentioning other encyclopedias, it would seem that their problem is with the Wiki- not the -pedia.
In stepping up in favor of students using Wikipedia, a lot of folks have questioned my strategies (and sanity). But Wikipedia has a lot going for it – its sheer breadth of coverage surpasses any traditional encyclopedia, especially in addressing contemporary issues and popular culture. While fears of Wikipedia’s inaccuracies are somewhat legit, most vandalism and clear inaccuracies are corrected in minutes by automated bots and dedicated editors. And research has shown (albeit with controversy) that on average, Wikipedia’s accuracy compares favorably with Britannica. But issues of breadth, accuracy, and the like neglect Wikipedia’s more interesting and pedagogically rich aspects over other encyclopedias: the wiki structure and interface itself. Why?
* Wikipedia is transparent in its goals and rules, explicitly listing its policies and guidelines. As far as I know, other encyclopedias offer no such reflexivity as to what they are, how they work, and what type of content and form they follow. As an educator, transparency provides an excellent teaching opportunity to get students to reflect on sources and their usage, discussing why an encyclopedia insists on ‘no original research’ or ‘neutral point-of-view’ (or whether such goals are even achievable).
* Each Wikipedia entry contains more than just an encyclopedia article about a topic. By reading the Discussion tab of any entry, you can discover the debates between editors about a given topic, controversies within the research, thoughts about structuring information, and the like. You can also view the history of edits, understanding how different editors have constructed the article and how knowledge accumulates. For those of us invested in getting students to seriously reflect on the research process, Wikipedia offers unparalleled access to the nuts & bolts of mechanics of research and writing.
* Wikipedia allows and encourages researchers to share their knowledge broadly. In the traditional academic formulation, students gather research to assemble into a project to be read by an audience of one, after which the professor (hopefully) returns the paper with comments exclusively for the author. Arguably this interchange results in student learning, but it is a singular exchange with few ripple effects beyond the individual.
But wikis are not a “read only” medium – they are inherently a “read/write” format. Reading a Wikipedia entry is only one part of the equation – to truly use Wikipedia requires people to become editors. Personally, I feel empowered and engaged by editing articles on wikis, knowing that by improving an entry I’m giving back to a shared resource. I believe in encouraging students to use their knowledge gained in a course beyond the confines of the classroom – wikis provide a simple & accessible interface to share and disseminate knowledge.
So here’s my version of a policy on using Wikipedia in a higher education setting:
While Wikipedia is an extraordinarily convenient and often useful source to read, merely drawing information from the site does not take advantage of its unique opportunities for education and disseminating knowledge. Students are encouraged to begin any research project on Wikipedia, acquiring hopefully useful background information and avenues for future research via primary and secondary sources that are appropriate to academic research. After doing the required research for a paper, students should return to Wikipedia, consult the guidelines for editing the site, and then improve the entries that pertain to their research, citing appropriate sources throughout.
For me, the problem with the History department’s policy is that they look at Wikipedia as a traditional encyclopedia, minus the editorial gatekeeping that (allegedly) ensures accuracy and stability of research. Instead of dismissing it as an inappropriate format of a traditional book-based encyclopedia, let’s embrace the unique strengths it offers students: the opportunity to engage the world outside the classroom and share their knowledge with a broader community while reflecting on the nature of research and writing.
I invite comments on this position, and feel free to suggest revisions (alas, I don’t have a wiki to put this in for open editing, but I’ll embrace thoughtful suggestions in the next iteration of this argument…)
Filed under: Middlebury, Not Quite TV, Teaching | 6 Comments