Why are Teachers so Anti Wikipedia?

Today in my honors physics class I mentioned some whimsically chosen names for the fourth (snap), fifth (crackle) and sixth derivatives (pop) of position with respect to time. Few people know these terms, but the first and second derivatives names are quite common: velocity and acceleration.

As soon as I mentioned the names there was an outpouring of skepticism from students who doubted a science as serious as physics could also be whimsical. I thought the skepticism was great so I encouraged them to look it up and mentioned Wikipedia as one possible starting point. My students questioned the validity of Wikipedia. One even mentioned that “you are the only teacher who likes Wikipedia.” I’ve noticed that my opinion of Wikipedia does not exactly put me in the majority either.

The main complaint I’ve heard leveled against Wikipedia is that it has a lot of errors. I understand why people think that, but is there data to support this ascertain? At least one expert led study seems to suggest otherwise by claiming that the average scientific article in Wikipedia had four errors while the average Britannica article had three. I’ve read many of Wikipedia’s physics articles and have yet to find an error. Sadly, the same cannot be said about many of the high school physics textbooks I’ve read.

The other criticism I’ve frequently heard is that anyone can wreck havoc and vandalize Wikipedia. There’s no doubt that this is true, but how significant is it? Imagine for moment that we live in a medieval village where all hammers, crowbars & saws are controlled exclusively by a carpentry guild. Suppose a technological breakthrough allows all citizens access to these tools. Some might fear distributing these powerful tools which could be used to destroy. Fortunately though, we know that’s not actually what happens. For every destroyer multitudes more build.

I see Wikipedia in a similar light. Although some do vandalize, many more repair. And just like in the medieval town, Wikipedia has methods of limiting the damage caused by users who pollute.

How could Wikipedia be used?

I like Wikipedia because it is generally clear, deep, broad, well networked, and easy to use. I think we should encourage students to be skeptical of not only Wikipedia but also print sources and ultimately ourselves. This may not be practical for every discipline but we scientists are fortunate that the best test is rarely more then an experiment away.

If you’re interested, here is an interesting paper about teaching students to use Wikipedia properly and some insight into how Wikipedia works.

Are my thoughts on Wikipedia tragically flawed?  Somewhat reasonable? Or just plain crazy? Please comment below (:

About integratedintention

I teach Honors Physics and AP Physics at Heritage Hall!

Posted on 7 November 2011, in Information Fluency, Research & Stats and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’m so glad you brought this up! I hear the lament from my students “what’s wrong with Wikipedia?” when I ask them to check their sources. During a history and culture research project I told them Wikipedia is a great resource for getting the jist of a topic, and the ability to click on links within articles to pursue a particular thread is incredibly useful. Use Wikipedia, by all means! Click around! Dig deeper! I still encourage them to check other sites, investigate the source of each, or perhaps (just imagine it!) pick up a book to verify facts. Sometimes I turn over a new stone on a well-worn topic while perusing Wikipedia, which keeps it fresh and interesting for me as well.

  2. As a teacher of technology, it also irks me to hear colleagues are “Wikipedia bashing” without taking the time to truly evaluate the site’s merits. As cemapzuchitl points out, it is entirely two different things to cite Wikipedia as a source versus using it to locate valid sources online. As you mention, Wikipedia has been tested and the accuracy of major articles on the site rank with or ahead of reputable encyclopedias with regard to accuracy. The definition of knowledge is changing…we are moving from a society where “experts” and “institutions” pass on intelligence to one in which the collective group possesses the best knowledge.

    When a student finds a statement of interest in a Wikipedia article, they should be able to click the superscript number link and find it in the article’s hyperlinked bibliography. Then they can visit that specific site to relocate the information (and more!) for use in their essay. Students still need to learn to evaluate sources and it is important to tell them that Wikipedia is not flawless or unbiased. They must learn to use judgement with the online encyclopedia just as they do when finding information in print media sources.

  3. integratedintention

    Thanks for adding the Wikipedia logo. I considered doing it too but when I looked at their copyright rules I was unsure if it was legal to do so without written permission. Is there a clear way of know when it’s ok to use images/logos like this?

  4. I have to say that I am one of those teachers who discourage my freshmen from using wikipedia (for research writing in my English class). First of all, I want them to go deeper into more detail and wikipedia is, as its name suggests, an encyclopedia version of information that aims for scope rather than depth. It, just like its good old leather covered hard back ancestor Great Uncle Britannica, lacks in the kind of analytical conversation and detail that I’m trying to teach them makes up good research in the humanities. Yes, they could use it as a launching off point to finding sources, but in my experience they don’t do that; they just stop at wikipedia because its simple and they can be lazy researchers at 14. I wouldn’t let students use a print version of an encyclopedia because it leads to regurgitation of information rather than the development of ideas and interactive conversation with texts, and so I don’t let them use wikipedia for the same reason.

  5. integratedintention

    Thanks for sharing! I definitely agree on the limitations of encyclopedias in general. Maybe the question should be: is it possible (& worth the cost/benefit ratio) to teach/expect students to recognize when the use of an encyclopedia is appropriate and when it is not?

    Most students (and people in general) are under the impression that all physics equations are always true. This is not so. I’ve been trying to emphasize the limitations this year. Of course once you open this door students approach the subject more skeptically, which takes more time, sometimes muddies the waters, & can make it harder to learn, especially for students who struggle. Ultimately though, for my classes & in my opinion, I think it is worth the cost.

  6. I have to admit that I have not always been a fan of wikipedia because I have seen myself so many pieces of false information posted on this website. As a history teacher I tend to be concerned with factual information but I am starting to see how it could be possible to use the website to get general information and then see if they can prove whether or not the information on wikipedia is true. In trying to find evidence for or against the information posted they would be digging a little deeper into the subject and having to justify their findings with evidence from other credible websites.

  7. Great place to pick up words to help with related research. Good place to start sometimes when the brain just can’t think of good words to direct the research. I would not rely on it for a source in a paper.

  8. Thanks for the article- I agree Wikipedia is a fantastic free resource, and it’s important to inform students (and ourselves) of how to evaluate the information on there, just as they need to evaluate the information in the other sources they use.

    Wikipedia helps this process by having a rating system for their articles- including ‘Featured Articles’ with the gold star are the highest quality and ‘Good Articles’ which are accurate and well-written. There are also warnings at the top of articles if they do not meet Wiki’s recommended standards. And they restrict editing on articles which are most prone to deliberate inaccuracies, as shown by the padlock symbol. So students should be taught to look for these indicators as part of their evaluation.

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