Commanding The Tide To Stay Out

That old argument about the validity of Wikipedia as a tool for research raised its head again at school this week when our library staff asked that a link to Wikipedia be removed from the “Library Links” section of our school intranet. Naturally, I questioned this and was politely informed that although the library staff think Wikipedia probably has a use, that use was not as a legitimate research tool. They preferred to disassociate the school library from Wikipedia, and only endorse “real” encyclopedias like Britannica and World Book. It seems that real encyclopedias are not free and require a login.

To avoid an argument I removed it. (Besides, the kids would still use it anyway whether it was linked from the library links list or not.) But it made me disappointed to realise just how much some of us still don’t “get it”, to say nothing of how embarrassing it is that I work at a school where the library wants to stick its head in the sand about tools like Wikipedia and pretend they don’t exist. I sent a reply back explaining that I was disappointed we didn’t want to acknowledge Wikipedia as a useful research option. I tried to point out that, like all tools for research, wikipedia need to be validated and cross-checked against other references. I also tried to make the point that kids WILL use wikipedia to gather information on a wide range of topics whether the library endorses it or not, and simply removing it from the list of links won’t change that, and that perhaps we should be teaching kids to use tools like this properly and not just avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist.

I promptly got a reply back, basically saying we are the library and they are our toys, so just remove the link anyway.

Feeling somewhat frustrated, I put a note out to my colleagues on the OzTeachers list asking for their experiences with Wikipedia in schools. Perhaps it was me that was wrong. Maybe I was the one who didn’t “get it”. The replies flooded back in over the next couple of hours with a series of overwhelmingly positive responses about how Wikipedia was used in school across Australia. I was pleased to see that so many educators (and librarians) are embracing this tool and using is as a means to teach better research skills. I was sent an excellent link to the Education Department of WA’s website where they not only tolerated Wikipedia, they are actually promoting its use. You can read the mailing list’s responses at the OZTeachers Archives… just scroll down to the bottom of this page.

Virginia Tech on WikipediaI was particularly struck by a post by Peter Ruwoldt, who suggested I take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the recent Virginia Tech Massacre, and in particular to cross check the creation date for the article with the date of the actual event. It was no real surprise to discover that both the event and the first Wikipedia entry about the event happened on the same date, April 16, 2007… in other words, the article was being written as the event unfolded. What I found really fascinating as I searched for the article creation date was to browse through the history of page revisions to see how the article actually grew minute by minute.

It began with a very simple line, “The Virigina Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16th, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain.” Three minutes later, it was amended to read “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain and one person is reported wounded.” The next revision came 2 minutes later and added a citation to a newspaper report. 7 minutes later, someone corrected a minor grammatical error. The article continued to grow, with over 100 edits in the next few hours, each one improving and correcting the one before it. There was a clearly evident group of people whose names keep appearing in the edit history list, demonstrating how people emerge to become the “keepers” of these articles. This is a completely organic process…. No one is elected to be in charge, no one has to hold a meeting to delegate responsibility. It just works.

The article has now been edited over 500 times, with each revision building on what has gone before it. The quality of the writing and the way it explains the incident seem to be excellent quality… at least of the standard that one would expect in a “real” encyclopedia.

This is what people who are critical of wikis don’t seem to get… Their assumption is that articles are spuriously written by people wishing to cause trouble by spreading misinformation. They don’t seem to get that these things are written by large groups of people who, through a process of self governance and wisdom-of-crowds, manage to refine and evolve some very good articles through a process of constant iteration. By the time this article has come to its current revision, many hundreds of people have contributed to it, and thousands of eyes have looked at it. How long do you think a spurious edit or a vandalised paragraph would last? Do you really think that the volunteer army that helped create this information would stand idly by and allow it to be ruined?

We live in a connected world, where peer-to-peer networks of people and information have forever changed the top-down approach that characterised the pre-web world. We can fight it, or we can embrace it. The fact is that no matter how much you might want to stand by the ocean and command the tide not to come in, it will come in anyway. The sooner we all “get that”, the better.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Commanding The Tide To Stay Out by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.