In Praise of Wikipedia

From Jim McGrath.

I presume that Wikipedia is here to stay, and so perhaps the most important and appropriate questions for educators to ask are not along the lines of “How can I get students to stop using it?” but rather “How can I and my students contribute to making this public resource better and more reliable?” If this were the Encyclopedia Brittanica or some other such traditional encyclopedia, and we were invited to write an article, as academics we’d probably welcome the opportunity. And so why not take the opportunity to contribute when we don’t have to wait for an invitation, do not have to meet a deadline, probably won’t have to write the whole article, and do not need to write our contribution all at once?

Amen. Wikipedia is the single largest work of knowledge ever accumulated in the history of the earth. It is arguably one of the most significant achievements of humanity.

I have zero patience with buffoons with no edits decrying it as worthless or fundamentally flawed.

There is no better way to familiarize yourself with a topic than to look at its Wikipedia entry. And its over-hyped inaccuracies and biases are actually positive. Of course wikipedia entries shouldn’t be trusted without question. But what escapes the luddite nay-sayers is the fact that no writing on any topic (particularly summary articles which have to sacrifice accuracy for brevity) should be trusted.

There are some pretty obvious heuristics for using Wikipedia. An article with one or two authors, which is short, poorly referenced and contains opinion statements, bad spelling and grammar, or incoherent prose, is obviously highly suspect. An article locked is likely to be contentious. And the quality standards information is very useful. Teaching with Wikipedia in the classroom basically requires you to help students appraise information that they have no prior understanding of. But that is an essential skill in all academia.

Wikipedia wrestles away control over information. And that is a universally good thing. As an educator in advanced studies you should actively teach your students how to appraise everything they hear: including the information you yourself are giving them.

Let’s show support for the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria.


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