Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Defence of Wikipedia Response

I have enjoyed the responses to my post In Defence of Wikipedia. Jim West says that he has disdain for Wikipedia, "Disdain because Wiki are “edit-able” by any Tom, Dick, or Harry who may, or may not, know what the devil they are talking about." This confirms my analogy with what many academics were saying about the internet in general a decade ago. The same thing was often said, that any Tom, Dick or Harry can put up their own website. Was the answer to discourage students from using "the internet"? Well, that was exactly the response that many engaged in at the time, but there is now a broad consensus that that was wrong, and that the answer in fact is to point students in the right direction on the internet, and to encourage them to engage critically and to assess the sites they are using in the light of their other reading. The same is becoming true, and will continue to become true with Wikipedia. We can disdain it all we like, but the fact is that it is here to stay, and it is only going to get bigger and better. We may as well get involved if we want to have a stake in the future. And let me throw in another analogy. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can start up a blog. Why should we get involved with the blogosphere when it is clearly so full of dilettantes?

Here's my challenge for Jim, which will help us to test the academic value of Wikipedia. I suggest that he goes to the Wikipedia article on Zwingli, find all the errors and correct them, add any additional important information, and then monitor it over the next twelve months to see whether any Tom, Dick or Harry comes in and spoils his work, and, if so, how straightforward it will be to make further adjustments.

In comments, an anonymous student says that s/he has lost marks by using Wikipedia, something that also confirms my point, which is that academics should encourage their students to engage critically with Wikipedia and not to rely on it indiscriminately. Similarly, Billy V in comments says that "I will not allow wikipedia as a legitimate source; I will however encourage students to go there as an introduction and as a gateway to other material." I am not keen on the term "source" in this kind of context. Wikipedia is a resource, not a source, and as such I encourage students to engage with it critically in the light of their other reading, and especially their reading of primary source material.

Another anonymous commenter (please sign comments) criticizes my use of the term "fear", and I think that's legitimate and, to be honest, I was using it to generate a reaction. But if the Middlebury decision to ban it "was driven by the fact that faculty members were annoyed at student research laziness", then I can think of much better ways of dealing with the latter. The problem here is not Wikipedia but student research skills. Judy Redman's comments essentially agree with the kind of critical engagement model I am suggesting, adding that "The exercise of validating data would be useful."


Matt Page said...

I had a conversation with a friend about it the other day. He said "Wikipeida is the sum of all human knowledge". I replied (somewhat tongue in cheek) "or is it the sum of all human ignorance". The truth is obviously somewhere in between, but it's useful to be aware of those two extremes.

Like any encyclopaedia, it's a good starting point, but not somewhere I'd feel comfortable quoting from, unless I knew from researching elsewhere that what it said was reasonably well supported.

Academics should assess students' use of it similarly.


Eric Rowe said...

I tend to think that every source of information should initially be treated as though it came from any Tom, Dick, or Harry, including books and college lectures. Researchers needs to bring along enough critical thought to demand the actual evidence from everyone and not simply to believe something because they heard it from experts. For me Wikipedia is a handy tool, and often the first stop I make online when I have a question. I can tell when I'm reading a good article and what kind of reasoning and evidence it depends on. If it's a bad article I will find out soon enough and disregard it. If it's a good article then it will also give me ideas of where I need to check next for information in primary sources and important secondary literature. Rather than steering students away from Wikipedia, teachers should recognize it as a tool providing fodder for one's practice of critical thinking. And if students reflect the use of it in papers, the comment in red ink should say, "How do you know this is true?" rather than, "Don't use Wikipedia."

Anonymous said...

Excellent posting, Mark. As a fellow academic, I can say this is a hot issue in some circles. I tell my science students to start with Wikipedia, if they want, but then to find solid internet sites or other sources of information, and NEVER cite Wikipedia as a source (at least not now).

Wikipedia often has an interesting selection of information, and that spurs student interest. That is a major redemming virtue. However, they the need to ask the important question, "But is this true?" So students learn to fact check, essentially.

As for errors, as with any site, I think experts should try to regularly contribute corrections, so the whole system can evolve eventually to a higher standard.

BruceA said...

I think your challenge to Jim West is a good idea. Many Wikipedia articles, in fact, do have a core group of users who monitor the article in order to correct mistakes, rephrase for better clarity, and remove vandalism when it occurs.

Still, it is inevitable that Wikipedia will contain errors. However, for that very reason I think it can be a useful tool for teaching critical thinking skills. If students can learn to engage the text, to question what they read and not passively accept it, to look for independent verification, then Wikipedia can play a valuable role in student research.

Peter M. Head said...

Someone should start with the Wikipedia article on the Bible. This is full of strange things, has no coherent structure, contains outright errors, ill-informed statements, and unsubstantiated assertions.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the fact that there is a a corrective mechanism built in to Wikipedia. Sure, some people put up inadequate information. But often someone else comes along, who is better informed, and improves upon what the first person said. I have helped correct a number of things in Wikipedia articles that I care about. At least there is this corrective mechanism, whereas with websites, there was none, other than someone building another website which could critique the inadequate one.

Wikipedia is not perfect, by any means. But I'm not sure that academicians need to react to it as negatively as they have. I suggest: join the exercise. There is a thirst among the hoi polloi for participating in sharing of information that is of concern at the grass-roots level.

For theologians and others interested in biblical studies, there is also now the Theopedia. Again, I'm sure that there are articles which are weaker than others. But there is always the opportunity, yes, even the desire, that those who are better informed on a topic will help improve the articles.

Let's engage the hoi polloi in information sharing. Let's help them learn about checking their sources. We can all learn from each other. Wikis allow academicians to step out of any ivory towers they may feel comfortable in and interact with others for mutual benefit.