Everyone knows I love Wikipedia. Our librarian knows it, regular readers know it, my mom knows it. I defend its value and its place in education as a quick reference, preliminary source, and bibliographic reference on a variety of topics. Properly sourced articles have a great deal of credibility.
However, I recently read about an informal UK study of medical students (actually undergraduates who, in the UK tradition, have begun "clinical attachments" in contrast to the American system of graduate medical education) who consult Wikipedia with extraordinary frequency and couldn't help but worry.
True, this is largely anecdotal and these students aren't exactly using Wikipedia to determine patient care, but this passage is somewhat telling:
Wikipedia was definitely the most common choice. Many students said 'I know I shouldn't but....' and then qualified that they used Wikipedia first because it was easy to understand, they felt it was reasonably reliable, and accessible. One student used it to search directly from her phone when on placement.
Wikipedia is ubiquitous. It's handy. And it works. However, wouldn't it be a great resource for the lay community and an important learning opportunity if these students were actually editing and adding to Wikipedia instead of making it their primary source for new clinical information?
It wouldn't take many medical schools requiring a "Web 2.0 Medical Resources" course focusing on available information, credibility, and online research to drastically increase the utility of Wikipedia and its ilk for both the medical community and patients.
Interestingly, Dr. Anne Marie Cunningham (a GP and Clinical Lecturer in Cardiff University, Wales, UK, who conducted the survey) made note of the relationship between how students learn and access information online:
I was intrigued by one student who was very keen to distinguish 'learning' which was what he did for exams... spotting questions on past papers and reviewing lecture notes... from 'experience', when he would access YouTube or Wikipedia to find out more about something that really interested him. His reluctance to call this learning reminded me of a third year student I spoke to earlier in the year. We were talking about how [he] would continue learning for the rest of [his] life. "That's so depressing", [he] said. In [his] mind learning was bound up with exams and assessment.
Learning, teaching, and communication are changing, even in the great halls of medicine. Any med schools care to embrace Wikipedia fully instead of having students keep its use a dirty little secret?