Wikipedia. A word that can shivers of dread down any educator’s spine.
Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has experienced an almost viral spread that has seen it become the go-to source of information all around the world. The online encyclopaedia contains information on pretty much any topic that can, and has, been thought up: from the strange corners of science to largely unknown historical figures and influential inventors. Wikipedia is clearly a source of basic (and sometimes in-depth) knowledge on many a topic. And yet many educators refuse to acknowledge it as a useful resource.
During my previous university studies, I completed eighteen weeks of practical teaching placement in four different secondary schools. And at each of these schools I witnessed a teacher emphatically tell their students that on no account was Wikipedia to be used as a reference for school assignments. I myself have been guilty of flat-out refusing students the use of Wikipedia as a resource. But why is this?
One associate teacher told her students of a radio quiz she had heard, where the person calling in was asked to name the current coach of a sporting team. The caller answered that the coach’s name was DaffyDuck, and later embarrassingly revealed that he had gotten the answer off Wikipedia. This particular teacher used this anecdote as a way of illustrating to her students that information provided on Wikipedia is not always accurate and emphasised the fact that just about anyone can alter or edit the articles. For a long time I accepted that this was a justified outlook… It is certainly true that information can easily be altered on Wikipedia. However, following my readings about information literacy for my university studies, I’m not so sure…
It is true that not all information on Wikipedia is 100% accurate. But the staff at the online database can be credited in that they attempt to keep it as accurate as possible. Articles that are lacking citations or proof or editing appear with large notices or warnings of this lack. But that’s not the main reasons for my change of heart… Information literacy is.
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A Wikipedia article cites the American Library Association’s (ALA) definition of an information literate person as someone who is able to “recognize when information is needed and has the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (Wikipedia). A key component of this is the ability to evaluate sources; to determine the usefulness and accuracy of information and resources. As a vital concept of twenty-first century education, it is imperative that teachers and librarians assist students in developing to become information literate citizens and capable users of all information sources.
And finally, to get back to the point: if it is so important that we teach students how to assess and evaluate the information they are provided with, shouldn’t we be allowing them to explore all of the resources that are available to them?
It is my opinion that, in refusing to allow students to use Wikipedia, teachers and librarians are denying students the opportunity to assess the validity of such websites and articles for themselves. Don’t mollycoddle students! If we do our job properly, we can teach our students to think for themselves, to think about the resources they use, and not just trust something because its what their teacher gave them. If we can do this, we can show our students how to succeed throughout their lives. If we encourage these students to critically explore sites such as Wikipedia, not only do we accept a growing resource of the twenty-first century, but we also enable and assist students to become critical users of information.
On a final note, I feel I should emphasise that I don’t think that Wikipedia is a resource that can be trusted entirely. I do not believe that students should be encouraged to reference it, but rather that they should use it as a foundation for further research. It is in doing this that students are enabled to become critical thinkers and information literate citizens.
So why not take the leap?
Why not allow students to explore Wikipedia, to judge for themselves whether it is reliable?
What is there to lose?