Wikipedia and Higher Ed – Glib Answers to Tough Questions

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Amazing Global Square Puzzle!, originally uploaded by Natman.

I was recently sent a few questions by a reporter working on a story about Wikipedia and its effect on higher education in Canada. He has kindly agreed to reproduce the raw, lightly-edited Q&A here. I do so in near certainty that my replies are missing key points or are altogether wrong-headed. And for the most part I avoided the epistemic thickets that Gardner cuts through with such grace. So feel free to catalogue my errors and oversights, the reporter will not be filing for another week or so, and I’ll make sure he knows about any meaningful response generated by this post.

1. What’s your take on students using Wikipedia as an academic tool? To your mind, what role can or should Wikipedia have on campus?

Wikipedia has developed into a remarkably useful reference tool. Like most reference works, it does not represent comprehensive research in itself, but it can serve as a very effective starting point or quickly provide contextual information.

2. Where does UBC stand on the issue? (i.e. is there any explicit policy at the University concerning Wikipedia as a source of information?)

I am not aware of any official UBC position or explicit policy, nor of discussions toward creating one. Nor am I aware of any other university creating such a policy.

In my own personal opinion it would not be appropriate for a university to issue campus-wide directives on which research materials are permitted or how they may be used in courses. Such decisions rest with instructors, who make those determinations based on their own convictions, the standards of their departments and the practices of their disciplines. Deciding whether a piece of information is useful or not is rarely a simple determination.

3. Do you have any shining examples of the consequences of students citing Wikipedia, good or bad?

First off, citing any encyclopedia for anything other than simple factual information is a sign of lazy research. Most reference works are best employed as starting points, or to provide background information to inform further investigation.

Citing a constantly-evolving document that is open to abuse (as Wikipedia is) presents obvious dangers, which is why many instructors refuse to permit citations of Wikipedia. But one can always cite a specific revision of an article — Wikipedia provides a handy link for each entry that provides this information for citations. And it’s worth noting that Wikipedia has a remarkably dedicated community of editors who work very hard to ensure quality, and an open forum to discuss contentious points in a transparent fashion. Studies of Wikipedia have usually found that the overall accuracy of entries is roughly comparable to that of Britannica — and that Wikipedia is far more up-to-date and responsive to new developments.

Keep in mind that a citation might serve a purpose other than providing evidence for a position. One might examine the edit history of a Wikipedia entry to trace the evolution of conventional wisdom on a subject, or to examine how consensus can be found concerning contentious subjects. Indeed, such research using Wikipedia’s content construction practice itself for data is becoming increasingly common.

4. What about the argument that quality information costs money to produce: are wikis just creating a sort of mass bloated quantity of information because of the simple fact that they are free? (Encyclopedia Britannica, on the other hand, costs about $1500 US.)

I’d say that Wikipedia is a powerful argument in itself that challenges a lot of our assumptions about how knowledge is constructed. Not only are Wikipedia editors willing to contribute their efforts for free, they do not expect tenure, glory, good grades or even attribution in return.

5. Do you think Wikipedia is or will be of historical importance? Are wikis a turning point in how people access information?

Even if Wikipedia crashes and burns tomorrow, its prominence and the near-miraculous amount of useful content that it has assembled ensures it is of historic significance. Incidentally, the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary offer many striking parallels. Wikis (and it’s important to note that Wikipedia is a single and singular example of wiki) are one of many forms of online media that are challenging how knowledge is constructed, consumed, disseminated and assessed.

6. What about the role of peer review and academic tenure in the production and dissemination of knowledge? Don’t wikis undermine that?

I don’t see how wikis or any other computer program can undermine academic practices such as peer review or tenure, unless those practices are somehow inadequate in themselves.

Again, speaking solely for myself, I do believe that the emergence of new media does represent a challenge to traditional academic practice. But that challenge will not be met simply by resting on credentials and institutional reputation. We have a lot of smart people in our universities, and it is up to them to forge a set of practices that accommodate what is useful in emerging technologies while preserving the traditional methods and resources that remain relevant. The academy has always evolved to reflect the society it is part of, and that evolution must never end.

7. Does Wikipedia really encourage understanding, or is it just us scratching the itch of our habitual curiosity?

Oh, a bit of both I suppose. When you see an incredibly detailed Wikipedia entry on the Klingon language it’s hard not to laugh and roll your eyes. But such cultural quirks should not obscure the genuine pragmatic value of the resource. Nor does it invalidate the super-cool nature of tens of thousands of volunteers working worldwide in good faith to create the best reference work possible. I fail to understand how any public-minded educator can’t be excited and encouraged by this phenomenon.

Incidentally, I think that fostering a sense of “habitual curiosity” and tapping its energy is a noble and worthwhile mission, especially for educators.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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