Wikipedia – what are we afraid of?

WikipediaVia: Open-Site.org

I’m one of the 23% who don’t ban Wikipedia.

I don’t understand the concept of banning an information resource. I get the criticism of Wikipedia. I understand the limitations of Wikipedia. For the life of me, though, I don’t understand banning its use. Why are we in the Educational World so fearful of this Wikipedia thing that 73% of teachers according to this infographic still prevent its use?

We all want our students to be good researchers. Part of this desire, I assume, has led us to develop programs in our classrooms that help to improve our students’ Web Search skills. I mention that because perhaps one of our problems with children and Wikipedia is that 99% of its articles end up on the first page of any Google Search. Are we banning Google Search? No. Well then, instead of banning Wikipedia, let’s look at whether we are educating our students in how to disseminate accurate information from the garbage. Why? – because the other 9 sites sharing the Top 10 Search page are just as likely to be as potentially unreliable as a source of information as the Wikipedia article, sometimes more so. So let’s work out how to support our students in learning good research skills through accessing the tool, instead of avoiding it.

Wikipedia references its sources of information.

Go to any article of useful length on Wikipedia and you will find linked references or quoted text sources. WIkipedia is often a summative recount of all those sources of information. It’s why students go there. It does a lot of the hard work for them. Now, if you want them to do the work, require them to seek out some of those sources and check the accuracy of that information. What is the reliability of the source site? What bias might this source have? What type of website is it? ( you can discuss the merit of .com v .org. v .edu or newspaper articles vs blogs or discussions) If we use textbooks instead of Wikipedia, isn’t this what we would be doing – comparing and cross-referencing for accuracy? Surely it is an easier learning task to check out 10 sources online than trying to flick between 10 different books and random pages within it? Technology isn’t about making it easier so that we don’t have to think. It’s about making it more effective so we do the job more quickly while still learning the same amount or possibly more. If we teach effective use of Wikipedia, this should be the result.

Wikipedia is no more or less biased than any other source of information.

One of the big bugbears with Wikipedia is that it can be contributed to by anyone. This can definitely result in biased, unsubstantiated garbage that needs to be filtered out. Any Obama/Bush/Gillard/Abbott/Lady Gaga/David Beckham/Charlie Sheen (etc, etc) hater can freely post hate speech on a wiki article. Eventually, though, it is found by Wiki editors and removed, but yes, by then it has already spread to the ill informed. But guess what?  This same overheated, one way stream of half truths can be spread by every other form of media from both sides of the political, ideological or religious spectra. We don’t ban our Left wing or Right Wing shock jocks from spouting their diatribes of exaggeration on a daily basis. So why ban Wikipedia? Again, let’s use it along with the extreme views of other media sources to educate our students about fact and opinion, checking out both sides of the debate, fact checking your information. This is of far more educational value than banning a resource that has much to offer, despite its limitations.

Wikipedia is about as accurate as any other resource. Check the stats.

Look at the above infographic. We’re quibbling over 0.94 mistakes per article when comparing Britannica to Wikipedia; 2% accuracy differential when comparing textbooks to Wikipedia. Are those numbers a reason to brand it unreliable and ban it? When any school library would be full of books about the Solar System that still list Pluto as a planet and have atlases without East Timor on the map as a nation? There is no such thing as 100% accuracy. All surveys come with that +/-2% disclaimer. In the 21st Century Curriculum, in which critical thinking is one of the key skills, we should be embracing resources that encourage challenging their reliability and allowing us to edit for accuracy.

Make the students part of the solution, not restricted from the problem

Wikipedia is open source. If we find mistakes, we can fix it. An error in a textbook stays there. A misquote in a news program remains said. If we want to engage our students in truly useful research, then get them involved in editing Wikipedia. Make them check their sources. Get them to be the information creators, not the takers(plagiarisers). That’s real learning. And it’s far more useful than banning.

Throughout history, banning has never worked. Cigarettes and Drugs are still around. Inappropriate websites find ways to be accessed. Hey, Nazis and KKK members are still out there in numbers. Banning the use of Wikipedia is not going to stop us from using it. Just look at the stats above. So let’s get serious in Education and embrace this information provider, using it as a teaching tool for critical thinking. That’s my take. What about you? Does your school ban Wikipedia? Do you agree or disagree? How do you encourage good research in your students? Join in the conversation.