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February 22, 2007

The Great Wikipedia Debate

Via Altercation: A New York Times article on the decision of the Middlebury College history department to ban students from citing Wikipedia in their papers and exams. While I recognize that Wikipedia has its limits, I'll join the chorus of those who think this policy is a bad idea, but this debate illustrates the degree to which educators will need to rethink how they teach academic research.

Like Jason Mittell, who is heavily quoted in the article, I think the history department's policy misses a tremendous opportunity for thinking about changes in research methods and knowledge acquisition. In fact, like Jason, I have assignments in one of my classes requiring students to participate in a course blog and wiki. In my case, I have asked students to contribute to a course wiki rather than editing or adding to an existing wiki such as Wikipedia (others are obviously welcome to participate in the blog and the wiki). While the blog and wiki are relatively rudimentary, I think its useful to consider how these forms can inform our goals as educators and researchers. Such activities seem far more effective in thinking about information literacy than an outright ban on using certain sources.

That being said, I encourage students to think critically about such sources as Wikipedia, namely its status as an encyclopedia that offers very little in the way of specialized knowledge and one that may be more subject to factual errors than other encyclopedias. But banning Wikipedia prevents us from having some valuable conversations about how these online tools can be used.

Update: Tim Anderson has a useful defense of Wikipedia on the MediaCommons blog. I'm inclined to agree with Tim that Wikipedia can be especially useful in tracking popular culture ephemera that might otherwise fall beneath the academic radar or get caught up in academic publishing limbo. While he's right to argue that Wikipedia may appear to be poor starting point for researching events or texts that have been discussed for decades, if not centuries, the site can be of value for those of us who teach and study popular culture.

Posted by chuck at February 22, 2007 3:56 PM

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Because I have wiki, blog, and del.icio.us assignments (as well as some other online things), I'm actually pretty comfortable banning Wikipedia as a source, just as I do any other general-purpose encyclopedia. (Somewhat amusingly, a nontrivial # of students refer to our class wiki as "wikipedia.")

However, that doesn't mean we can't turn to it as an example of wiki practice.

And I even am fine with students bookmarking one or two Wikipedia pages in del.icio.us, with the caveat that they Really, Really Ought to find more interesting/useful things pretty quickly.

Posted by: JBJ [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 22, 2007 7:20 PM

i think they should ban wikipedia as a source. wikipedia is supposed to source most of its info so why shouldn't the students go to the source info also....

Posted by: jillbryant at February 23, 2007 1:03 AM

JBJ and jill, these are good points, of course. I do think it's important to push students towards other sources, but I'm less certain that banning Wikipedia will get that result.

Posted by: Chuck at February 23, 2007 9:39 AM

Thanks for the discussion of this issue - just an alert that I've got a longer follow up post about Wikipedia & Middlebury on my blog...

Posted by: Jason Mittell at February 23, 2007 7:14 PM

Thanks for the update, Jason. This has turned into an interesting debate.

Posted by: Chuck at February 23, 2007 7:33 PM

It's not for surly accurate, so their should be limits.

Posted by: lakessagaskin at March 20, 2007 11:05 AM

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