Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wikipedia as a source and a tool

John Smith from Los Angeles asked, "I wanted to get your opinion on Wikipedia. I have read reports written by students quoting this source that has vague or incorrect infomation. I read a report in my union magazine that warned of using this source for the same reason. You seem to endorse the site. Your thoughts??"

Here's a slightly revised version of my answer. I had to organize the thoughts I'd accumulated over the past couple years of watching wiki projects, writing articles for a couple, and reading other people's comments.

I have ambivalent feelings about Wikipedia. I'd never trust it for something important or cite it as a source in formal research. I'd never accept an unsubstantiated Wikipedia reference from a student. As a source, I think it has to be treated like a highly partisan one, since no one really knows who the authors or editors are.

I contributed some articles to Wikipedia a couple years ago, but quit when several partisans -- including one of the self-appointed editors -- insisted on using biased labels for historical events and fell back on arcane Wikipedia rules to support their bigotry. It was the prejudice of a few at work, not the wisdom of the collective. That might reflect popular opinion, but neither good history nor good human relations.

I do use Wikipedia for quick fact checks - dates and names, for instance, since errors in those easily verifiable things are likely to be correct or quickly corrected. (I just hope the errors have been corrected when I look something up. I really have no guarantee of that.) I am less likely to seek verification for information about chemistry, gravity, or demographics than about social science, religious, or political topics.

From what I've seen on Wikipedia, lots of data are copied by editors from the U. S. Census Bureau and other public sources like the CIA World Factbook. If students were to use that data for a paper, I'd want them to verify that the Wikipedia editors copied the numbers correctly. Then again, the U.S. Census Bureau data and the CIA World Factbook are online. An original source is preferred to a secondary one, so why would a student want to cite a secondary source when a primary one is equally available? (Wikipedia footnotes can be quick references to the original sources.)

In other words, as a source, Wikipedia has limited value and great limitations, but the ratio varies depending upon the context of the topic in question. Other sources, especially those vetted by librarians or other experts (disdained by Wiki enthusiasts) are more likely to be reliable.

I think the situation offers great teaching opportunities to get students to critically use sources.

You could assign students a variety of topics to look up in Wikipedia and then ask them to evaluate the value of the information there. That, of course, involves fact checking and verification.

It's like the lesson I wrote several years ago when I asked students to look at the web site for New Hartford, Minnesota and compare it to another small town web site, like perhaps New Ulm, Minnesota. Then I asked them to determine which town was real and which one was imaginary and how they could tell the difference. (New Hartford, like Lake Wobegon is imaginary.)

Then there's the topic of "wiki" software, like that used for the Wikiversity. It's a different topic.

The software allows the creation of a web site that anyone permitted by the site "owners" can add to or edit. I'd guess any school district server could host it, and the software is free.

The wiki software can record who does the adding and editing and if the rules require people to identify themselves relevantly, everyone can know who does what.

I think that would be superb as a class web site for summary, review, and collaborative study. I would prefer to limit participation to class members and maybe guest experts I'd invite (like a local professor, a textbook author, or another teacher). The web site would be responsive to students' perceptions and needs. Misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge would show up and could be addressed. By the end of the course, there could be a great outline and review guide. (Don Myers in Bellevue, WA is working on creating one of these for his classes. If you have advice for him, I'll pass it along.)

However, as wiki critics have pointed out, subtlety and ambiguity often get lost in the wiki writing process. I'd want to make efforts to see that considerations of context, "what if" questions, and complexity remained present in a course wiki. (After all, not all questions can be multiple-choice.)

Such a class wiki would be a valuable thing to have online if you taught a class first semester and then wanted to review for the AP exam in May.

That's my limited endorsement. Like book and movie reviews, someone could edit this and produce a tag line that looked like a rave or a pan, but it's neither and both.

The New York Times' Technology Section Q & A column by J. D. Biersdorfer offered these hints if you're interested in setting up a "wiki" for your course:

"Many people and business groups are finding wikis helpful for collaboration and project management. Like a blog or other kinds of Web sites, there are two main ways to start a wiki: You can use a software-and-hosting service on the Web, or you can set up the necessary software on your own Web server.

"Sites that let you set up your own wiki free include Wikispaces and Wiki.com. These sites, like the ones that offer to guide you through the process of setting up your own blog, can be helpful for beginners.

"But if you already have your own Web site or server, you can install free Wiki software like Twiki or MediaWiki to get your wiki running."

See also

DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism By Jaron Lanier

"My Wikipedia entry identifies me (at least this week) as a film director. It is true I made one experimental short film about a decade and a half ago. The concept was awful... It was shown once at a film festival and was never distributed and I would be most comfortable if no one ever sees it again.

"In the real world it is easy to not direct films. I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again. I can think of no more suitable punishment than making these determined Wikipedia goblins actually watch my one small old movie...

"The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots..."


The Free Range Librarian on Wikipedia

"Librarians are very open to all kinds of information, but when librarians recommend books, databases, websites, or other resources to patrons who are looking for specific information, we look for information we can trust...

"However, when gatekeeper is used as an epithet, as in "you anti-Wikipedian gatekeeper, you," it doesn't mean someone who is tending, but someone who actively prevents people from accessing information. So I'm prepared for that label when... I bring up my concerns about about Wikipedia...


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