Thursday, March 08, 2007

Wikipedia: Bane or Boon?

Let me first say that we use Wikipedia extensively at our house. "Let's ask Wiki" is a common answer to my boys' uncommon questions. It's not the only source we use, but it's a lot cheaper and more interactive than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

There's been some grumbling in education circles about Wiki's accuracy and whether it should be considered a source for college research. Middlebury College's History Department banned using Wiki as a source for research papers. Then there was some silly scandal about one of Wiki's editor claiming to be a theology professor when he was really a college dropout. Both these "scandals" miss the point, imho. Wikipedia is a collective source of knowledge. What you read there may or may not be entirely accurate, but in the aggregate, it's an excellent overview of some difficult topics or first source for arcane knowledge (Just what does the flag of Somalia look like?).

Maybe Wiki has an even greater part to play in education, simply because of the nebulousness of its information. At the University of East Anglia in the UK, masters degree students are required to write for Wiki. "Nicola Pratt, a lecturer in international relations, said she used to be "one of the disgruntled crown of academics who berate students for using Wikipedia in their essays" but is now convinced it can be a great opportunity for students to see at first hand how knowledge is produced.

Uniquely in the UK, her postgraduate students studying for a masters degree in international relations and development are assessed on editing eight Wikipedia articles to improve the quality and make them more balanced. They must also write one of their own.

They haven't found it easy, according to Dr Pratt, and soon discovered just how much reading around the subject was involved. "I've seen improvement with all the students - I think it's working," she said."

Maybe we should do less blaming Wiki for lazy research methods among undergraduates (citing an encyclopedia? Excuse me?) and do more to improve Wiki and improve our collective wealth of knowledge.

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