How do you teach students to be critical users of information? Ban Wikipedia. At least that seems to be the answer for some terribly misguided teachers. One school district has gone so far as to restrict access to the Wikipedia website. Why? Because it is inaccurate.
The stupidity of this approach is manifold. First, it suggests that the other resources on the web somehow are accurate; that students need not be critical about sources. Second, it encourages not only a lack of media literacy, but a lack of search literacy. Go into any news room in the world, and you will find journalists making use of Wikipedia to get background and help them to find new information. Wikipedia is a wonderful way to start finding out about a topic. A ban also cuts students off from an important new way that people gather to collaborate and educate themselves. There are other reasons this is stupid (just as book-banning is stupid), but this gives us a good start. Frankly, if I had a kid in the Warren Hills Regional School District, I would pull them out of school, and give them a chance to get an actual education. I hate to think how these poor children are going to cope if they make it to college and have to learn how to research a topic–research that will often include going to Wikipedia.
To illustrate, what does a young student do when faced with a report on the city of Kamakura. In my day, the first thing students would do, often with the school librarian’s encouragement, would be to go to the “reference” section of the library where they would encounter an encyclopedia. Of course, you wouldn’t reference the encyclopedia, because your teacher or your librarian would tell you that this wasn’t appropriate: encyclopedias were not meant to be primary references, just a way to get started. Now that you knew the bare facts: that it was near Yokohama, that it was traditionally a producer of lacquerware, that it was the seat of the shogunate for a time, you would search for books or articles on these topics that would give you a more complete and authoritative understanding of the topic.
What does a student at one of these schools do now that Wikipedia is banned? If they search on Google for Kamakura, the first hit is japan-guide.com, which provides tourist information. They might follow that, and if they have been taught to evaluate sources, they might question the amount of advertising, and the purpose of the site. The second hit, Wikipedia, will be unavailable to them, at least until they go home and access it from there. (Here, we see that Warren Hills is doing more than just damaging the education of their students, they are disproportionately damaging the education of students who have limited internet access elsewhere.) Maybe they will go to MSN’s Encarta, a site that not only is (presumably) credible, but actually encourages student use, by having a “homework” link, and providing a citation students can copy and paste into their report. Apparently, unlike Wikipedia, Encarta hasn’t gotten the memo about encyclopedias not being good sources to cite. Even worse, they provide no indication of where their information comes from, or who has written the entry (often temporary student employees), leaving the student to rely on the word of Microsoft as to the truth of the two-paragraph entry.
What about the student who has access to the Wikipedia entry. Certainly, that student might simply trust what is written there, and cite Wikipedia, but only if that student’s teachers and librarians have been woefully inadequate in teaching the essentials of literature and web research. The good student will evaluate the information found. The very first sentence in each entry notes the location of Kamakura with respect to the modern Japanese capitol, Tokyo. One version of Encarta’s article notes that the city is “45 km (28 mi) southwest of Tokyo,” while Wikipedia’s has it “about 50 km south-south-west of Tokyo.” (Another version of Encarta doesn’t provide this distance.) It would seem one of these is wrong. 45 km is “about” 50 km, and from city center to city center it appears to be about 45 km. But as with anything, the truth isn’t black-and-white. Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis: do you measure from city center to city center, or from city limits to city limits, or perhaps in terms of the distance by train. These are the kinds of questions that comparing the two entries raises at the outset.
The Wikipedia article doesn’t tell you how to cite it. In fact, if you go to its “about” page, it pretty clearly spells out the strengths and weaknesses of the resource. Encarta provides no such help in evaluating the work, and provides a citation to use, incorrectly suggesting that it is worthy of citation.
Both articles provide internal links to further information, but the Wikipedia article also provides links to other sources. Of course, the quality of these links differ from article to article. The article on Barack Obama, for example, has 175 links to (generally) authoritative sources, while the article on Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine has only two links, one to another online encyclopedia. Encarta provides none of its sources for an article on Obama, and (ironically), a search for dimethyl hydrazine points the user to Wikipeida. Paid placement links on Encarta pages, we may reasonably assume, may mislead many students.
We don’t know who wrote articles on either site, nor whether we can trust them, but at least in Wikipedia’s case, we can triangulate some of the sources and determine the degree to which we trust the sources provided. The sophisticated Wikipedia user is also likely to look at the discussion page and history page for an article to determine what statements in the article may be controversial. I fully recognize that Wikipedia is riddled with errors. Thanks to some of my students, a short Wikipedia entry about the ever notable moi, woefully misunderestimates my figjam. Nonetheless, if someone were to look for basic information about me, they could find far worse starting points.
“God created Arrakis to train the faithful.” Perhaps He created Wikipedia to train the researcher. Teachers who ban Wikipedia miss a massive “teachable moment.” None of the above should be read to suggest that Encarta should also be banned, though when you start banning sites, it is difficult to know where it will end. On the contrary, one wonders why a school would take the new global library and start burning particular books. Students should be wary of Wikipedia, and if anything should carry that wariness with them to other sources of information. We should be teaching our students to be curious and skeptical, not cloistered and credulous.