The Great Wikipedia Debate

August 29, 2010
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by Ashley Patriarca

A common complaint in teaching is that students have difficulty sorting through the plethora of information that is available to them over the internet, particularly that information available to them via the ever-popular Wikipedia. I can relate plenty of stories – some real, others mythical – about students who start and end their research process with articles from the collaboratively written online encyclopedia. It’s frustrating for teachers, and, frankly, it’s a misuse of what could be a good research tool.

Despite the horror stories, Wikipedia is not the pedagogical enemy. The real problem is not using the site as a springboard for talking with students about how they should find and evaluate information. In the classes I teach, we watch a video of Stephen Colbert playing around with the site on The Colbert Report, capriciously changing the entry for “Oregon” and encouraging his readers to change the entry for “elephants.” We talk about the aftermath of that episode, and how Wikipedia editors had to lock down those entries when the Colbert Nation enthusiastically followed Colbert’s suggestion (a potential problem with any crowd-sourced document). This video marks when the word “wikiality” emerged to become part of the general lexicon. The same could be said for Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Captured Koala, as Amy Cavender at ProfHacker notes. Like Colbert and the elephant incident, the Wikipedia Brown webtext reminds us that anyone has the power to update pages in Wikipedia. That’s a pretty heady situation – it gives anyone the power to create common knowledge. The two humorous examples remind students that this power has the potential for deliberate or accidental misuse (that does not mean that all information from Wikipedia is inaccurate – the Spurious Tuples post listed below is an excellent reminder of how informative the site can be).

After we watch the video and read the webtext, I emphasize that Wikipedia is not in and of itself a source, nor do the founders of the site intend for it to be. Even if the site was simply an online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, we still wouldn’t want students to cite it in a formal paper. Rather, Wikipedia is most useful when it is used as a starting point for research. Whether or not an article is perfectly accurate or well-written, it links students to original sources or stronger secondary sources which they can then evaluate for potential use in a paper. In addition, these linked sources may also provide leads that the students can then follow for additional information on a particular topic.

This brief example is certainly not the limit to our classroom discussion about research; rather, it’s part of a semester-long examination of what it means to find, evaluate, and use information in writing. It is, however, a way to get students to examine critically their usual consumption of information. If you teach, how do you approach research and the use of Wikipedia in your own classes?

Additional sources on the Great Wikipedia Debate:

Ah, Wikipedia! – Amy Cavender, ProfHacker

Wikipedia, and the Librarians Who Hate and Fear It – Catherine, Spurious Tuples

Getting Beyond Accuracy in the Wikipedia Debate – Ben Vershow, if: book (The Institute for the Future of the Book)

Ashley Patriarca is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. She teaches technical writing courses in the university’s English department. She also serves as editor-in-chief of Public Knowledge.

2 Responses to The Great Wikipedia Debate

  1. markmere
    February 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    This is a great topic for debate and one some graduate programs are diving into. Wikipedia has reached out to public policy schools, including Virginia Tech’s CPAP, to try to improve the public policy information available on Wikipedia. Here’s the project:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_United_States_Public_Policy

    BTW – I’m a student in Prof. Dull’s class who’s part of Virginia Tech’s project. We’re just getting organized and many of the students had the very same questions you raise here, with the Wikipedia ambassador giving the exact same answer you did.

  2. admin
    February 16, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Thanks for your comment, Mark! That project looks intriguing – please keep us posted on it.

    I should also note that I’ve added an assignment this semester that asks students to write a technical description/extended definition for Wikipedia itself. It makes students think differently about Wikipedia – and what they write, considering it’s for Wikipedia editors and readers. I’m curious to see how it will play out in terms of how they conduct research for the remainder of our assignments.

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