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.
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 â€” while convenient â€” 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.