David A. Wheeler's Blog

Sun, 21 Mar 2010

Using Wikipedia for research

Some teachers seem to lose their minds when asked about Wikipedia, and make absurd rules like “I forbid students from using Wikipedia”. A 2008 article states that Wikipedia is the encyclopedia “that most universities forbid students to use”.

But the professors don’t need to be such Luddites; it turns out that college students tend to use Wikipedia quite appropriately. A research paper titled How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research examines Wikipedia use among college students; it found that Wikipedia use was widespread, and that the primary reason they used Wikipedia was to obtain background information or a summary about a topic. Most respondents reported using Wikipedia at the beginning of the research process; very few used Wikipedia near or at the end. In focus group sessions, students described Wikipedia as “the very beginning of the very beginning for me” or “a .5 step in my research process”, and that it helps primarily in the beginning because it provided a “simple narrative that gives you a grasp”. Another focus group participant called Wikipedia “my presearch tool”. Presearch, as the participant defined it, was “the stage of research where students initially figure out a topic, find out about it, and delineate it”.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Wikipedia should not be cited as an original source; I have no trouble with professors making that rule. Wikipedia itself has a rule that Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. Indeed, the same is true for Encyclopedia Britannica or any other encyclopedia; encyclopedias are supposed to be summaries of knowledge gained elsewhere. You would expect that college work would normally not have many citations of any encyclopedia, be it Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica, simply because encyclopedias are not original sources.

Rather than running in fear from new materials and techologies, teachers should be helping students understand how to use them appropriately, helping them consider the strengths and weaknesses of their information sources. Wikipedia should not be the end of any serious research, but it’s a reasonable place to start. You should supplement it with other material, for the simple reason that you should always examine multiple sources no matter where you start, but that doesn’t make Wikipedia less valuable. For younger students, there are reasonable concerns about inappropriate material (e.g., due to Wikipedia vandalism and because Wikipedia covers topics not appropriate for much younger readers), but the derivative “Wikipedia Selection for Schools” is a good solution for that problem. I’m delighted that so much information is available to people everywhere; we need to help people use these resources instead of ignoring them.

And speaking of which, if you like Wikipedia, please help! With a little effort, you can make it better for everyone. In particular, Wikipedia needs more video; please help the Video on Wikipedia folks get more videos on Wikipedia. This also helps the cause of open video, ensuring that the Internet continues to be open to innovation.

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