Don’t Judge a Wiki by its Cover

I was a bit horrified at a message I received through my school email account today. It was an internal memo basically saying that we were not to use Wikipedia with the students because it was far too unreliable.

This pessimistic view of Wikipedia was in stark contrast to an excellent podcast I listened to only the day before, titled Introducing Web 2.0 by Tim Wilson. Tim is an educator who is really passionate about the potential of Web 2.0, and has a much more positive outlook on Wikipedia as a learning resource.

I for one don’t agree with most of the criticism leveled at Wikipedia, and would like to think that as a staff we could have had some sort of professional discourse about this issue before we throw the baby out with the bathwater and just say don’t use it. Just like we expect our students to critically assess the resources we place in front of them, I think we also need to critically assess our use of resources like Wikipedia rather than just declare it “bad” and not use it. The issue is not wether Wikipedia might have a few inaccuracies – the issue is how do we teach our students to be astute users of ANY resource, not just Wikipedia.

I think the many benefits of Wikipedia need to be taken into consideration before we make any rash decisions like telling students not to use it.

First of all, I’m going to assume that people understand what a wiki actually is, and that they understand how the articles in a wiki are created. For those that don’t, here is a quick explanation, but basically a wiki is a webpage that is read/write enabled, meaning that users can, if they have the appropriate permissions, edit the page’s content. This enables wiki pages to be a dynamic, constantly-evolving, highly-scalable resource that is kept very current and this is Wikipedia’s biggest strength over static printed resources like traditional encyclopedias.

Wikipedia started life in 2001 as an offshoot of the Nupedia Project, and has grown to become the largest single constantly-updated encyclopedic source on the planet, containing well over 5 million articles on all manner of topics, with over 1.4 million of those in English. Many of these articles are written on extremely niche topics, and in terms of its overall depth, detail and ability to stay up-to-date, Wikipedia has few equal.

The articles in wikipedia are generally started and maintained by people with a vested interest in those particular subject areas. Whenever there are errors or even page-vandalism, these mistakes are generally fixed quickly by the “keepers” of those pages. Teachers I speak to have a huge fixation about the fact that pages can be vandalised, but seem to completely overlook the fact that pages also can be fixed. And that there are way more people who keep them fixed than people who vandalise them.

The problem is that there have been a few recent high profile, and I believe overblown, reports of inaccuracies in Wikipedia. The nature of a wiki – in that they are able to be edited by anyone – is such that inaccuracies can and sometimes do occur. There is no dispute about that. However, those few cases of reported inaccuracies need to be placed in their proper perspective of over 5 million current articles, most of which are highly relevant and pretty darn accurate.

Despite the *potential* for biased, vandalised or just plain wrong information, the overall accuracy levels of Wikipedia remain extremely high for the vast majority of articles it contains, and the fact that it is constantly updated means it can offer content that cannot be found elsewhere. Tim provided an interesting example in his podcast, that the Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina was being written as the hurricane was still happening, that information was being added and updated constantly in real time, and the entry has continued to grow since then. The Encyclopedia Brittanica still doesn’t have an entry for Katrina at all. Surely that sort of immediacy has to be worth something?

It may be true that many (if not most) students (and many adults for that matter) are unable to detect incorrect or misleading information, but this is as equally true of text found in newspapers, magazines, books, TV and other sources as it is of Wikipedia. Even primary sources need to be considered critically. Let’s fact it, history is always written by the winners… Adolf Hitler might be remembered very differently had Germany had won the war. Students should be made aware of the possibility of errors or bias in Wikipedia, just as they need to be aware of errors and bias in all sources. Sure, Wikipedia should certainly not be the only option they have for finding information, but to say it should not be allowed as one of the options is downright foolish. We should be teaching our students to critically evaluate all information they are exposed to and perhaps rather than being a resource we discourage, Wikipedia offers educators the best possible environment in which to teach students about this idea of critical analysis of information. At least kids can approach Wikipedia with an expectation that there may be errors and keep their guard up.

“But my kids don’t use it well, they just plagiarise it without thinking critically” I was told several times today. So, ok, if they don’t use Wikipedia well, teach them to use it properly. I thought that’s what we teachers did. If we claim that some students use information from Wikipedia without thinking or questioning, then does it matter whether the facts were correct in the first place or not? I suspect those same students would use “legitimate” information sources just as indiscriminately, with the only difference being that teachers would mark their finished work on the basis that it was “correct”, and assume (incorrectly) that these students learnt something… the actual amount of real learning that may have taken place may be just as limited regardless of whether the “facts” they submitted were correct or not. In fact, a student submitting work that is factually correct that they still learnt nothing from is, in my opinion, almost a worse prospect that having students submit work where the facts are wrong. At least I can spot those kids!

I’ve personally seen many textbooks where the information is suspect, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. (I taught a senior computing course two years ago where all three of the approved textbooks consistently contradicted each other about basic facts and terminology – all three books were supposedly based in the course syllabus) My personal experiences with the news media suggest that most of what we read in newspapers contains many errors. Any time an author puts pen to paper, he or she exhibits some bias or interpretation of the facts. Wikipedia is probably no better or worse than any of these other sources, and in many cases has information which is probably far more nuanced than most other sources. Remember the people who maintain the articles have a vested interest in making sure they remain as accurate as possible. It’s all about the Wisdom of Crowds.

I mean, make up your own mind. Try this exercise… Pick five subjects in which you consider yourself somewhat of an expert. Look up these subjects in Wikipedia and see how accurate they are, compared to your own knowledge. You’ll soon get a feel for how accurate (or inaccurate) it is (or isn’t).

I’m almost certain that you’ll find the level of information in Wikipedia to be better than you might expect. And the beautiful thing is that if it’s not as good as it could be, you can fix it.