The Problem with Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia; although Google is still my search-engine-of-choice, Wikipedia often turns up the information I was looking for (and suggestions for additional reading to boot!) more quickly and easily. On the other hand … all that “additional reading” sometimes leads me down paths I hadn’t intended to explore and makes me forget what I sat down to brush up on in the first place.

The Problem with Wikipedia; from http://www.xkcd.com

(comic courtesy xkcd.com)
On the one hand, I am easily distractable, and so staying on task is hard enough –without– any additional temptation. On the other hand, isn’t this exactly what Wikipedia is about – making it easy to find not just the answer to a question, but also to help answer the questions of others, to find questions you didn’t know you had, and to collectively move forward as a result? It seems to me that’s exactly the kind of resource that students should be encouraged to use … because learning isn’t about staying on task. Yet, institutions from which I would expect otherwise are looking to restrict students’ use of Wikipedia:

While plenty of professors have complained about the lack of accuracy or completeness of entries, and some have discouraged or tried to bar students from using it, the history department at Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work. All faculty members will be telling students about the policy and explaining why material on Wikipedia — while convenient — may not be trustworthy.

I’m glad the department is going to talk to their students about their decision; it’s a step in the right direction (away from top-down mandates and towards engaging students in their own learning). However, what is the department -really- communicating to its students by saying that Wikipedia’s material “may not be trustworthy”? It’s a terribly passive-aggressive and elitist statement which at once assumes knowledge is static, unchanging, and in need of a caretaker, and speaks to the existing hierarchy of knowledge ownership at many institutions – professors have it, students don’t.

More surprisingly, it implies that students won’t, can’t properly care for said knowledge. Wikipedia is indeed a collaborative effort which can be accessed, viewed, and edited by anyone, anywhere – even if they don’t know anything about the topic they’re editing. (gasp!) For many who spend their lives pursuing degrees and credentials knowledge, that a space exists in which their ideas, their research, their experiences and observations are given no more importance than that of the riff-raff and ne’er-do-wells general population can be frightening. And yes, Wikipedia does bringing the pursuit of knowledge to those outside the ivory tower. But in all practicality, who uses Wikipedia? I’d be willing to bet the average user is remarkably similar to the average college student in terms of socioeconomic status, educational background, intellectual (and even non-intellectual) interests, etc. And so, to say “we don’t trust them” is to say “we don’t trust you.” Is that really the kind of learning environment we want to create? Also:

There was some discussion in the department of trying to ban students from using Wikipedia, but [Don] Wyatt[, chair of the history department at Middlebury College] said that didn’t seem appropriate. Many Wikipedia entries have good bibliographies, Wyatt said. And any absolute ban would just be ignored. “There’s the issue of freedom of access,” he said. “And I’m not in the business of promulgating unenforceable edicts.”

Am I the only one infuriated by this entire line of reasoning – that they’re allowing their students to continue to use Wikipedia not because it’s the right thing to do, but because the policy would be be too hard to enforce? This could be a great opportunity for this department (and educational institutions in general) to teach its students about critical thinking and research skills, as well as appropriate and inappropriate uses of new media and social software. Instead, they’re choosing to cast doubt on a perceived threat to the educational status quo. That’s not bad technology … that’s bad teaching.

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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  1. Lynne Crandall · February 7, 2007 Reply

    Marc Prensky gave a talk last year during which he commented on Wikipedia and some professors’ bans on using it as a resource. He suggested that they were missing out on a wonderful opportunity to address the difference between “search” and “research.” Just because it is on Wikipedia does not automatically mean it is inaccurate, but rather that one might want to make a habit of finding supporting or complimentary data.

  2. Cal Frye · March 5, 2007 Reply

    It’s not an original observation with me, but I can confirm that Wikipedia appears generally good and authoritative on topics outside my own areas of expertise, but within those areas I have researched personally, I see glaring omissions and inaccuracies. I have edited some Wikipedia articles myself to correct some of the more obvious issues I saw, but a major difference remains:
    My print publications were peer-reviewed and not anonymous. You can consider the credentials of me and my co-authors and determine a level of trust for what we published. On Wikipedia, no one knows you’re a dog. Removing anonymity might be the single best improvement you could make. I understand the other issues this could raise, but even in the Encyclopedia Britannica, you know who wrote the articles and what authority (yes, and biases) they can bring to the subject.

  3. Ryan · March 14, 2007 Reply

    Lynne,

    Indeed … Wikipedia should be treated with the same dose of healthy criticism applied to any other source.

    Cal,

    I disagree; removing anonymity or requiring a certain level of expertise / lack of bias reduces the number of potential authors. But, the more people that collaborate on any given article, the less it matters what the particular authority or bias of each individual is. I highly recommend you take a look at The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki; it’s available in the Main Library.

    For both of you (and everyone else) … stay tuned for an entire show on Wikipedia and its relative merits. I’ll be posting an announcement in the next day or two…

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