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…)

6 Responses to “The use of Wikipedia in higher education”

  1. Not bad from my perspective as an editor πŸ™‚ Wikipedia would also be a good talking point about useful but not 100%-reliable sources – wikis, blogs, press reports, etc.

  2. Nice post. The more that I engage this kind of debate, the more that I understand the conservative nature of the academy. Here is a new tool and instead of finding out how to make the tool more refined or more robust, mainstream academics blame the tool.

    Wikipedia has its problems, but so does every book in the world. As I have been teaching in the last few years I am almost always confused by students with tales about teachers who tell them that Wikipedia is not a good source. I often think this is thinly veiled contempt for anything that hasn’t gone through an older process of multiplied modes of verification (see editorial boards). In a sense the Wikipedia makes all of us an editorial board, which distributes power away from University endorsed experts and into the hands of other forms of expertise.

    I guess because I study popular culture and trust fans before scholars (I never trust an media scholar who doesn’t have some sort of fandom in their character), I am a lot more comfortable with this then, say, those old-school historians. But those old-school scholars who trust, say, the OED should read how it was initially composed in The Professor and the Madman.

  3. This is a solid defense, but I might show Wikipedia even more love. I use it all the time. It’s often the first place I go when I want to learn about something new. I read the entries there like I read anything else: critically, skeptically, with an open mind, ready to formulate questions. To me, the point of teaching undegrads is to inculcate in them this mode of engaging with ideas. On some topics, there may be no better introductory sources than the Wikipedia entry. Maybe these are usually topics more contemporary than the history dept tends to teach. The biggest flaw of Wikipedia today is probably the way it favors the present (in Stacey Schiff’s New Yorker article a few months ago, which I have students read when I teach a day on Wikipedia as a new model of public engagement with the production of knowledge, she compares the entries on St. Augustine and Britney Spears…the latter is longer and more detailed by far). So some Wikipedia entries are superficial, inaccurate, badly written, or poor summaries or the given material. This is true as well of a great many historical books. Does the history dept aim to ban all lousy sources? Part of the point of doing research is figuring out what a good source is, and this must be judged by reading it first. It is an anti-intellectual stance to say, “Don’t use this whole category of material.” Wikipedia is too vast for the history dept to have evaluated it well enough to justify such a ban. So in a nutshell: I would tell students, you need to find the best sources. If you cite Wikipedia, it had better be as good a source as you can find on the topic. The fact that it’s an encyclopedia or a wiki shouldn’t matter.

  4. Good post, and a very interesting proposal at the end and a good example of how actually to improve a deficiency rather than merely creating a taboo around it. I fail to see the conflict, for the History Department’s decision seems to allow for your proposal.

    Most institutional practices evolve very slowly, and I can think of very few, if any, that adapt slower than universities. My freshman year in college, the university required that each section of our compulsory lit. course post to a web forum before each class (basically the same journal exercise from high school, that made sure we read the book, used as an excuse to try out a new toy). The exercise was useless and many professors and students didn’t see how it could facilitate discussion so they dismissed it. In this case (and clearly a rudimentary web forum and wikipedia worlds apart) would you attempt to strongly encourage or force a technology onto a group for the sack of the innovation, even if it distracted more than it helped?

    I think that in private or perhaps in a departmental meeting, your proposal would be taken well and would work with some of the more technologically hip instructors, such as yourself. Those who do not wish to utilize wikipedia — who would prefer to just stick with disseminating knowledge to those students in front of them — should not be questioned. And they will most likely be more effective as professors if left to the practices that got them to this point.

    I understand how the bells and whistles of today offer new frontiers for our universities, but, as a former undergrad and post-grad who studied English, I usually found them more distracting than helpful for the students. I and my classmates wanted and I now believe needed to learn traditional research methodologies, and only after having acquiring this knowledge could I get the most out of the technology (see Harold Bloom’s comments about the internet in his Charlie Rose interview). That being said, your proposal is exciting and I wish you luck.

  5. Jason, just thought you might be interested in Cass Sunstein’s Washington Post column on Wikipedia. I’ll probably cross-post it a few places, but he argues for Wikipedia’s value as a means for doing research and creating community.

  6. 6 Jonathan Gray

    I think this whole debate points to the dire need for our universities to add a freshman course on (or heavily theme a freshman course with discussion of) how to ascertain knowledge. After all, using Wikipedia to get a date here, an intro to this there, etc. is fine, but I grimace when students decide that it and E! Online are the only sources necessary for deep analysis and theory. I also grimace, though, when they let a dictionary (even the OED) define their essay’s key term, without further comment. Hence, I like your division, Jason, between disliking the Wiki- and disliking the -pedia, since most of my objections to Wikipedia are to the latter. And Tim’s no doubt right that this shows old guard academics being threatened by the new technology and new authorities of which they are not arbiters … but beyond this, I’d imagine for many instructors, Wikipedia is disliked just because it’s the -pedia of the day: nobody needs to ban Encyclopaedia Britannica because none of our students use it anyway. My generation is probably one of the last who grew up in an encyclopaedia-owning household: then the Internet made them redundant for many.

    So I think that a lot of this is about instructors’ frustration with how their students do or don’t research. Of course, then, on one level, it’s important to defend Wikipedia’s uses and value. And Michael’s point about encouraging the love of knowledge acquisition is a great one too. But we are also in dire need of helping students to learn how to find, arrive at, create, and assemble knowledge. We can grumble about students doing things incorrectly, or we can help them to do it correctly, and earn our paychecks as educators. And by teaching them how to acquire knowledge, I don’t mean (just) in the old ways, but also in the new ways. Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture makes a wonderful case for how wikis, etc. represent the new ways in which knowledge work. But here, sadly, is where we come back to Tim’s cynicism regarding universities’ capacities to deliver the new. At my own uni, for instance, they’re revising the core curriculum “for the new century,” but show no sign of adding anything recent, and every sign of keeping in lots of courses that introduce people to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. So the sad irony is that my colleagues and I will no doubt continue to grumble that our students are quoting and wikis without context and proper framing, yet many of these colleagues will be ever so happy that out students learnt Aquinas’ life history, and not knowledge-acquisition skills.

    I remember high school, where we’d be pulled out of classes to get “consumer education,” sex education, etc. It’s sad that our unis have shown so inflexible in developing similar “(academic) life skill” courses or spaces. I wish I could do more personally, and I do my little bit, but it seems sort of out of place to do more when I’m teaching, say, “Mass Media and National Identity,” to have a two week hiatus to discuss knowledge acquisition.

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