Alex: I know a lot of teachers say they don’t use Wikipedia because anyone can edit it. That makes sense. You don’t – if anyone can edit it, you don’t know what kind of people are going to post on certain articles.
As Alex pointed out during a focus group interview conducted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, students in K-12 are often told by their teachers not to use Wikipedia. Can we trust anything on Wikipedia, if we don’t know who is editing it? Certainly, serious errors (intentional or otherwise) have been found in Wikipedia entries before. However, perhaps teachers are being overly cautious, as students appear to be fairly aware of the limitations of Wikipedia, regardless of whether they actually use the crowd-sourced encyclopedia. For students, credibility seems to be the primary factor as to why they dismiss Wikipedia as a high quality source of information. As another participant reported, “I don’t use Wikipedia because, like, you could just, like – anybody could say anything on Wikipedia.”
Researcher: Given that your teacher tells you not to use Wikipedia but you spend a lot of time on it anyway, what do you think about your opinions versus your teacher’s opinions?
Julie: I just want to get my work done.
Despite the fact that students have stated that they believe that Wikipedia is not very credible, they continue to use it. In a 2010 survey of 176,192 Wikipedia users, youth ages 12-17 represented 24.2% of the sampled group. In studies done on Wikipedia in higher education, students often report using Wikipedia but avoid citing it in their reports. In a personal context, students from Berkman focus groups report using Wikipedia to look up pop culture, like “a band or a song or an album,” or any other topics of interest.
Additionally, although anyone can edit and add to Wikipedia, that doesn’t mean that everyone is exercising their editing powers. As of May 2012, there are only 77,000 active contributors/editors, with 23% of contributors having completed degree-level education and 26% who are undergraduates. The quality of Wikipedia articles is admittedly uneven at times, but a Nature study famously showed that, on average, Wikipedia has 3.86 mistakes per article. In comparison, Encyclopedia Britannica had 2.92 mistakes. This isn’t to say that we should blindly trust the credibility of Wikipedia, of course, but perhaps we should be more skeptical of encyclopedia articles in general and less skeptical of Wikipedia in particular. Citing Wikipedia is not recommended even by Jimmy Wales (“Citing an encyclopedia for an academic paper at the University level is not appropriate – you aren’t 12 years old any more, it’s time to step up your game and do research in original sources”).
So…perhaps the use of Wikipedia is not necessarily bad. The information quality framework extends beyond credibility and includes factors such as timeliness and relevance, taking a more holistic approach to evaluating quality (Berkman Center for Internet & Society). If we continue to tell students that they should avoid using Wikipedia, but they use it anyway, then we are missing out on an opportunity for students to learn more about information quality. Conceivably, we could teach students how to use Wikipedia.
Nick: I also use Wikipedia because it does have a bibliography at the bottom, and the only thing you have to worry about for accuracy is things with a citation needed at the end of a sentence in a Wikipedia article. But like, if it has a number that signifies a certain source was used, then I would see that as reliable.
Researcher: Do you then look up the source. or once you see the number, you are relieved?
Nick: It depends. If it’s—sometimes the source links back to a book and obviously I can’t just go to a book on the computer, but sometimes it will link to another website and I’ll use that.
In 2007, Middlebury’s history department made headlines by banning Wikipedia in citations, although they did not ban its use. “Don Wyatt, the chairman of the department, said a total ban on Wikipedia would have been impractical, not to mention close-minded, because Wikipedia is simply too handy to expect students never to consult it” (New York Times). A 2010 study in First Monday reports that over half (52%) of college students surveyed frequently use Wikipedia, although 70% of all students surveyed only use Wikipedia at the beginning or near the beginning of their research process. “Students in the sessions explained that Wikipedia entries have value in the beginning because they provide a ‘simple narrative that gives you a grasp,’ ‘can point you in the right direction,’ and ‘help when I have no idea what to do for a research paper’” (First Monday).
For individual students, Wikipedia can be used as an overview of topics, or as a springboard for links to primary sources. For teachers, Wikipedia can be an opportunity to expose students to better information quality. Instead of banning Wikipedia, let’s come up with some best practices about how to be more critical in searching for and evaluating information. Furthermore, exploring content creation and the peer review process (or Wikipedia in the social context) is possible by teaching students how to create well-crafted articles. For instance, one high school teacher documented his experiences teaching social studies with Wikipedia, and Edudemic has created a list of ideas for using Wikipedia in the classroom, based off the Association for Psychological Science’s Wikipedia Initiative.
The quotes used in this blog post were informed by the focus group data collected by the Youth and Media Lab at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
For more about information quality: http://www.pcworld.com/article/170874/the_15_biggest_wikipedia_blunders.html