Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

Summary: Banning Wikipedia? You're doing students a disservice.

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TOPICS: Collaboration
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This plea doesn't apply to the teachers (or administrators, for that matter) who have figured out that Wikipedia is an incredible knowledge store, cornucopia of primary sources, and go-to site for most the free world. Rather, this plea is for those who, instead of teaching students about Internet site credibility, fact checking, verification, and crowdsourcing, choose to simply prohibit the use of Wikipedia.

Two of my kids were assigned papers within the last week and told they could use any sources other than Wikipedia. Seriously. Because apparently, the first three hits on Google are outstanding information sources.

I know Wikipedia is scary. It has pictures of genitals, deviant behavior, piercings, and virtually every other item that we block with sophisticated content filters in our schools. So does the rest of the Internet, in infinitely cruder and more explicit settings. You know what Wikipedia has that the nether regions of the Internet do not, though? Citations. References. Links to further reading and verifiable primary sources. And when it doesn't, it has a nice little box at the top of the entry explaining why it doesn't meet Wikipedia standards.

Wouldn't it make far more sense to encourage students to use Wikipedia, cite it appropriately, and then insist that they also use X number of linked primary sources? How much more valuable would it be for a kid writing a report on Mars to not only read about it in relatively straightforward terms on Wikipedia and then also read a relatively obscure website put together by an MIT scientist on Martian climate issues?

Trust me. When that same kid Google's "Mars", he's not going to find Jason Goodman's views on the possibilities of terraforming Mars based on his understanding of areography or his current research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And how much more interesting would that same kid's poster presentation to the class be if he'd talked to Dr. Goodman about his theories? It only took a few clicks out of Wikipedia to find his mailing address at Woods Hole. Why not send a letter? Or (gasp!) an email?

Here's the problem with prohibiting the use of Wikipedia: We all use it anyway. Look up just about any new term, word, or expression in the search engine of your choice, and the Wikipedia entry for that term will be the first hit. And usually it's not only spot on but gives you the information you need immediately.

Yet all that junk that we worry about on Wikipedia also gets used by students who haven't been taught to correctly verify sources or to understand the reliability of web materials. Without a thorough understanding of its powers, pitfalls, and how to determine both, students won't be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Some assignments are designed to focus on a particular type of research or learning. If you want your students to know the ins and outs of Lexis Nexis, then obviously they should be sourcing Lexis Nexis. If you want them to do original historical research, then microfilms of old newspapers are usually a quick library trip away. Wikipedia probably doesn't have a place in these assignments.

However, Wikipedia deserves the same place in most modern assignments that Britannica did in most of ours. It was a starting point and a collection of additional references for our research. It gave us the general background we needed to dig further. Wikipedia does the same, with remarkable reliability given the success of the crowdsourcing model. Wikipedia, however, makes most of those primary sources and deeper research possibilities available within just a few clicks. We don't need to teach our kids not to use Wikipedia. We need to teach them to make those extra few clicks and decide for themselves if the Wikipedia entry has merit. It's a skill that is broadly applicable in an age of information overload and Google's billions of search results.

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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185 comments
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  • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

    Completely agree! I was infuriated when it was "blocked" at my high school.
    ShanOw
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      I highly doubt they had all the various porn sites and places to find information and material that shouldn't be in the hands of a kid blocked thou. So glad they have our kids interests at heart....
      ChMacQueen@...
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @ShanOw

      Try using a proxy like hidemyass.com to get there.
      blaacksheep
      • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

        @blaacksheep
        Many "websense" filtering services also filter out anonymous proxies like that.

        And even if it didn't, browsing to a site that has the words "hide my ASS" from a computer on campus would surely be scrutinized by admin.
        PolymorphicNinja
      • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

        @blaacksheep
        Actually - being the huge nerd that I am, I made my own proxy by modifying the "Glype" PHP script.
        ShanOw
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @ShanOw

      this artical should be removed from the database. the Problem with Wiki is that I could go on it and type garbage about somethign that i find accurate, completely BIAS. Anyone can edit a post on Wiki that they want. really think of it like this, your on youtube, but you want tips on dating for example, are you listening to a kid who is in 6th grade, or some old 80 year old prune? Now with wiki you have no way of truely determining the sources of the information after it has been added to, and frankly, I totally support the banning of Wiki in School education. At least on Youtube you can see if the person is as old as they might say they are. Anyone who uses Wiki for studying is a idiot, and well if you fail or get points doc'd, you deserve it!!!!!!
      Ez_Customs
      • PAY ATTENTION TO REFERENCES!!!

        @Ez_Customs

        ROFL...

        From the article: "You know what Wikipedia has that the nether regions of the Internet do not, though? Citations. References."

        Your statement: "Now with wiki you have no way of truely determining the sources of the information after it has been added"

        So to set things straight, if someone read your comment and considered it insightful... now THAT would be idiocy!
        Technical John
      • check history of docs

        @Ez_Customs <br>It is a 'little' more sophisticated than you imply. I am not sure you have used it. Try it. Add your thoughts to a page in a subject area you feel comfortable with and watch what happens over the next couple of weeks.<br><br>You can check the revision history of a page. Often contributers make sure they get notified when changes are made so they can approve/disapprove of the changes made. If they disapprove they may either rewrite or revert to a previous version. <br><br>Still, it might be better for you to remain ignorant of the resource and just regurgitate other people's views (as your post does) rather than find out for yourself. <br><br>Of course the age bar on knowledge is well known?? People over a certain age are always wiser than people under it and have no biases or reasons to push their ideas out there??<br><br>Good luck from<br>Tom <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/happy.gif" alt="happy">
        Tom6
      • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

        @Ez_Customs Do you have any idea of the vetting process that goes on with Wikipedia or even how to use Wikipedia? I'm talking not about going to the site and searching a term, because, yes, there are unfortunate times when a page is vandalized or gets caught up in an edit war or is on some more esoteric subject that one person might post with erroneous data and isn't immediately corrected, BUT, for any one subject that is likely to be of any significance, there are many people dedicated to preserving that article's factual content.<br><br>Aside from being essentially censorship, like book banning, prohibiting students from a vast, albeit however invalid, resource for learning will inevitably result in students either being disadvantaged for obeying the rules, when they should have been taught to use to use Wikipedia correctly, or more likely, if they have the opportunity of a home computer with an internet connection, they will learn to flaunt rules instead.<br><br>If there is one lesson that any student or anyone else for that matter should take away, it is always consider any source objectively.
        valvestate@...
  • Ridiculous!!!

    @s_souche <br><br>You do not make access to information and knowledge harder, you make it easier. Both my children have acquired a lot of knowledge from Wikipedia over the years and used it as one source for their high school paper research.<br><br>If their curiosity is aroused about something, the first place they go is Wikipedia. In the time your "harder but worth it" approach has provided information about one question, my children have already found answers to 10. Guess who will become more knowledgeable?<br><br>This is the kind of boneheaded approach by some educators that blow my mind. They are there to facilitate, not obstruct.<br><br>Edit: The reliability of sources is an important issue, no doubt. But let us conduct a mind experiment. Give one group of students a one paper assignment where they could NOT use Wikipedia, and give another group of students a 10 paper assignment (on a diverse range of topics) where they could ONLY use Wikipedia. Both groups would be given the same amount of time to complete the papers. Which group would learn more?<br><br>As students get older, more in-depth research becomes important. Wikipedia however is such an incredibly diverse and easy to access/use source of information, that I think its use should be encouraged in schools. If you can somehow let children discover the joy of learning, you will have mostly won the battle. You do not accomplish that by making their learning more difficult.
    Economister
    • It was ironical of course

      @Economister :-)
      s_souche
    • Well, in that case..

      @s_souche

      I owe you a thank your for your subject line getting me more fired up. I have no problem with sarcasm or devil's advocate type posts if it stimulates the discussion.

      My post incidentally, was only about 10% towards your post and 90% towards the stupidity of the teachers. Thanks for your reply. I did wonder how you would react, but I figured I would take the chance to get my post closer to the top. :-)
      Economister
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @Economister

      While I agree I do also see the point that kids need to learn how to research content from a point of no information. If all they ever use is wiki then that can be an issue but as long as they have learned how to research more in depth past the wiki page then all's good.
      ChMacQueen@...
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @ChMacQueen,

      Yea but they shouldn't block wikipedia, they could just prohibit the use of wikipedia as a cited source. Wikipedia is a good place to start. It gives you general information and some links to some "real" sources as a baseline for your research.
      bmonsterman
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @Economister

      the only time wiki is a good service is when you can or have taught your kids to identify information for what it is worth, and really unless you know the topic inside and out then you don't know if the stuff is or not. And if you do know the topic enough to okay the information on that page, then you should be teachng your kids threw there homework. parents are so lazey it pisses me off. yes I am gulty to, but i will never be so lazy I will allow my kids to use wiki. bad Parent no beer for you
      Ez_Customs
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @ChMacQueen

      All reputable coleges will bann teh citation of wiki, because of the generally loose topic discussions and lack there-of factual infrmation. yes there are good resources on Wikik, but the chances all information is accurate are so slim, it isn't even fair to say Wiki is good for even starting. all it takes it one description to get trust, and if that is the one site that has been so contaminated with garbage, your kids ust got screwed. look at it that way.
      Ez_Customs
    • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

      @Economister Wiki is great for learning, but not quick enough for today's quick fix internet kids. For a kid really trying to learn though it is invaluable as you have stated. I think Wiki should be used encouraged with your explanation attached. And c'mon kids with computers, have seen what ever it is they want to see when we the parents can't see them.
      donotdisconnect
  • Also an excellent chance...

    @s_souche

    It was also an excellent chance to teach children to not always trust without questioning what their teacher says, or more generally what any authority figure says.

    Whether kids cooperate with teachers or not, they frequently look up to teachers as subject matter experts. Unfortunately, in primary and secondary schools, teachers that do an effective job teaching kids critical thinking skills are few and far between. I had about 8 in my ~60 teachers through high school that I'd say were excellent at this.
    colinnwn
  • RE: Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia

    @s_souche

    Umm what? Wikipedia lists solid verifiable information sources along with disclaimers on anything posted that they can't verify saying trust at own risk pretty much. Its no different then telling a kid they need to do a report on X but can't use paper enclopedia's or any books that are in the school library about that specific subject.

    Least Wiki has links to other content sources to verify and find out additional information. Only reason to not like Wiki is thinking a kid will copy right out of it which is the same thing some do with enclopdia's or any other content source. Thats a disipline and a child issue and not a content issue.
    ChMacQueen@...
    • Verifiable? yes. Solid? Not necessarily.

      @ChMacQueen@...

      You've actually demonstrated EXACTLY why Wikipedia is problematic. You make the false assumption (that many others make) that just because there's a link to a source, that it automatically makes the information in a Wikipedia article accurate. All a link means, is that you agree with someone else.

      There are actually two problems with the "link" argument for Wikipedia:

      1) it favours free internet-published content. That means that links to scientific journals, business research papers, and other academically published content (which would be far more reliable than what's usually available on the internet) is actually discouraged on Wikipedia, for no better reason than the fact that this stuff isn't available to just anyone cruising the internet.

      2) All citations are treated equally. All that is required for a Wikipedia article to pass muster in most cases is to have non POV language and have cited content. Yes, some people will read and improve the citations in an article, but many are taken at face value. And with the major problem of point #1 above, you can only go so far to make sure citations are "reliable" as many more simply can't be linked to directly.
      daftkey