You knew that sooner or later one of us would end up doing a Wikipedia post, didn’t you?
Yes, it’s a resource with some potential pitfalls for students. In fact, I’ve been known to point my students to Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Captured Koala to illustrate one of those pitfalls: sometimes, the information it contains is inaccurate. It’s precisely this sort of problem that led the History Department at Middlebury to ban citations of Wikipedia in student work.
Well, of course college and university students shouldn’t be citing Wikipedia in their work, any more than they should be citing any other encyclopedia–as was noted in an Inside Higher Ed article on the citation ban at Middlebury. And yes, Wikipedia does have a wider range of contributors–some very knowledgeable about their subject, others less so–than more traditional encyclopedias, and it’s good to caution students about that.
I’m in the camp that thinks it’s fine for students to use Wikipedia as a tool to (a) get a quick overview of a subject and (b) find suggestions about other resources that would be appropriate for citation in college-level work. I haven’t experimented with assigning my students to contribute to Wikipedia, as Professors Martha Groom and Dean Taciuch have.
But I do tell my students that it’s fine to use Wikipedia for background. I also show them the history and discussion pages of an article (so they get a sense of how it works), and point out both the self-correcting potential of Wikipedia (which David Parry noted a couple of years ago in an article at Science Progress that also raised some important points about digital literacy) and the speed with which it can be updated (to take an example: Senator Kennedy died very late on August 25; I taught a class at 8:00 am the next day–and his page had already been updated).
A colleague of mine (one of our awesome librarians) has a post at her blog that I’m in full agreement with, and that goes well beyond what I’ve said here. I’ll summarize it (inadequately) thus:
Sometimes Wikipedia’s a useful source, and sometimes not, but it’s worth checking. It covers some topics that are difficult to find in other reference works, and can point students to good, reliable sources.
But seriously, go read the whole thing.
How do you approach the Wikipedia issue with your students?
The image in this post is by Flickr user piston9 and CC-licensed.