Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

Summary: Everyone knows I love Wikipedia. Our librarian knows it, regular readers know it, my mom knows it.

TOPICS: Collaboration

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?

Topic: Collaboration

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Wikipedia will support this

    Just to add to the story, I should point out that Wikipedians support schools
    and professors who want to integrate improvement of Wikipedia articles into
    their courses: see the Wikipedia page "Wikipedia:School and university
    projects" (shortcut "WP:SUP", if I remember correctly) for an overview and
    some examples of historical and extant student projects. There haven't been
    any medical-student projects that I've yet seen: who will start the first? :)

    (disclosure: I am a volunteer administrator on Wikipedia)
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    I feel like I have been challenged now! Watch this space!

    Anne Marie
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    The Wikipedia entry for the late David Carradine read in part
    "The cause of death was a ninja assasination in the middle of
    the night. Carradine was unable to fend off the attack because
    his buddy Chuck Norris was passed out drunk." for at least 96
    hours until sometime yesterday. This is but one example of the
    garbage to be found there. I've also seen it in supposedly
    objective technical topics, where someone's company has a
    vested interest in one approach to solving a problem over
    another. The campus where I teach at one point had a photo of
    its bell tower replaced by a photo of the Eiffel Tower; it stayed
    up for two weeks. I'd use it to look up the names of John
    Adams's children, but I take it with a huge grain of salt on
    anything with more potential emotional or economic impact.
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    There are precedents for domain experts, even i healthcare, to volunteer their time to answer questions. A potential problem with the model you propose is that medical students--of all students--probalby have the least "spare time."
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    Yes, it is a good place to begin research but I can assure you that the surest way to receive a F is to cite Wiki as one of your sources.
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    I've looked at Wiki from time to time and like the concept; but found it to be error prone and unreliable; without depth. Sounds like today's modern educational system.
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    This is a really interesting paper on junior doctors use of web 2.o in the UK.
  • RE: Med students should be editing, not using, Wikipedia

    GIGO started as a programmers' term. Why, with Web 2.0, have
    so many programmers/technistas forgotten that? Wikipedia is a
    _medium_ just as a book is a medium. That seems to be
    forgotten in this. Saying knee-jerk that it would be better for
    students to edit and create content that is supposed to be
    referential is ridiculous--just as ridiculous as saying that a
    textbook created by students is ipso facto "better" than one
    created by specialists. Yes, "better," if that means "auto-
    referentially meaningful," but, not necessarily "better" if that
    means "full of insightful information that allows for accurate
    analysis and prediction." Would you say that those med
    students would be better off if they threw away their textbooks
    and simply created new ones on the basis of what they and
    their friends might (or might not) know? Would you want such
    a student operating on you?

    You might answer: "Well there are checks: teachers and
    exams." Sure, but extrapolate out only one generation. [And
    look to Charles Pierce's theory of abduction to understand this
    fully--use Wikipedia if you're not familiar with it ;-) ]. If our
    students come to confuse the process of learning information
    with the process of creating lasting, testable, universally
    meaningful referential information, then soon all referential
    information will be conditional and suspect. It is akin to saying
    there is an inherent equivalence between a recording of a
    beginner's piano recital and a recording of Horowitz or
    Rubinstein at their prime. There is not--and anyone with an
    ear can tell you that such an equivalence is malarkey. The
    problem is that most people need specialized training to "hear"
    the difference between specialized and spurious knowledge,
    especially in more arcane and esoteric areas. As well, anyone
    with higher education should know how many explanations out
    there are based in folk knowledge and intuition that turn out to
    be completely false, when tested in any rigorous way.

    The kid who said that the books are "learning" and the web
    stuff is "experience" had it more right than wrong. Wikipedia
    articles, because they do not experience the constraints of
    traditional publishing, can either be the beginner's concert or
    the maestro's--you need some other measure (other sources or
    a mentor) as a check to gauge where on the spectrum you are.
    It's depressing that the specialists around him didn't get it. All
    of us who use (and especially those of us who teach about)
    technology in the classroom need to remember that the new technology is a medium and not an end in and of itself. --R.
    DeLossa, Lowell Public Schools

    p.s. The question of whether the medium _is_ the message is
    best saved for later.
    • to R DeLossa


      It would be great if you could go to my original post and see the discussion we have had there. I am inherently sceptical about the place of web 2.0 technologies in education, including my own continuing education as a practiciising physician.
      ( See:

      I blogged about this because I wanted to know if others thought that we should be worried about students using wikipedia as a reference. In actual fact there is ample evidence that doctors do to... see my blog.

      Students were not to be encouraged to edit wikipedia so that they could produce something as good or better than 'experts', but so that they could learn about the process of producing content, with referencing, as a social good.

      We should be thinking about how we break down the walls of the institution and disseminate make our learning.

      And I think that you may have misinterpreted the experience of the student who discussed 'learning' and 'experience'. He was able to give me examples of where he had very clearly learned from youtube the details of head and neck anatomy which he was yet to cover in the course. And he did it because he had curiosity and was motivated. This is real learning! It is much more doubtful whether the hoop-jumping that some examinations involve produces the same level of learning.

      But I would be delighted to continue this conversation with you.

      Anne Marie