Truce Be Told
On July 31, 2006, Stephen Colbert did a segment on his show, The Colbert Report, mocking the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The site was five years old at the time and starting to become hugely popular. But it was also greatly debated. Bloggers referred to it as “wicked-pedia” and “irresponsible scholarship.” Headlines called for a “stand against Wikipedia” and proclaimed, “Wikipedia: more dangerous than crack.” A year after the Colbert episode, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AL) even introduced legislation that would have banned Wikipedia from public schools. By far, the biggest criticism — and the biggest jokes — revolved around trustworthiness. What makes the site unique is also what makes it potentially problematic: Anyone can anonymously create entries about anything and, with some exceptions, can also anonymously edit entries created by other “wikipedians,” as they’re called. There is no hierarchy of expertise. As a 2006 New Yorker article pointed out, it is “a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read 15-year-old.”
Colbert, with his laptop in front of him, jumped on this.
“Who is Britannica to tell me George Washington had slaves?” he said, referring to another encyclopedia, the oldest in the English language still in print and one that is often pitted against Wikipedia. After logging on to the Wikipedia site, Colbert continued, “If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia,” (he clicks the keyboard) “it’s also a fact.”
At the time, this kind of random contribution — by a regular Joe who was having fun, or at least who wasn’t backing up his claim with scholarly research — was exactly what educators were worried about when it came to students using the free site for research. Teachers, librarians, and professors started discouraging Wikipedia. Others outright banned students from using the site as a resource for projects and papers.
But now, five years after Colbert’s segment, there are signs that attitudes about Wikipedia may be slightly shifting. There are fewer heated debates online about the site’s evils, and headlines are more likely to focus on Wiki leaks than Wiki tweaks. As one blogger noted last January, marking the site’s 10th anniversary, “A reporter told me the other day that mocking Wikipedia is so 2007.”
Even educators, it seems, are starting to throw out olive branches.
Librarian and media specialist Linda O'Connor is one of them. In the fall of 2007, news spread fast and far about her "Just Say No to Wikipedia" posters, which she had hung above every computer in the library at Great Meadows Middle School in New Jersey. The local newspaper ran a story about her actions, as did The Inquirer in London and The New York Times. She appeared on FOX & Friends morning show. Library listservs lit up.
"Kids just take it for gospel, they really do," she said in interviews about Wikipedia. "That's my concern about it." A year later, though, new posters carried a slightly softer message: "Wikipedia-Free Media Center."
"It too led to many good discussions and I used it as a teaching tool throughout the year," O'Connor says, including putting up a bulletin board with the sign, "Using Wikipedia as a research tool." On the board, she posted examples of incorrect Wikipedia entries for students to read, and presumably learn from, such as a piece about the death of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) during President Obama's inauguration. (Kennedy actually collapsed at the inauguration luncheon and was released from the hospital the next day.)
More recently, O'Connor went one step further: She took down the anti-Wikipedia posters.
"Omitting my Wikipedia posters from the media center bulletin board this year was an easy decision," she says. "Students are using answers from Wikipedia on other websites without realizing it. I decided to concentrate on website evaluation in general," such as teaching eighth-graders how to validate sources.
The same transition happened to Beth Holland, Ed.M.'02. When she started working at a small independent school in Newport, R.I., in 2006, as director of technology, she also told her students not to use Wikipedia.
"During my first year, I really struggled with teaching online research," she says. In particular, she felt like Wikipedia was tricky for her elementary-aged students to navigate, especially when it came to recognizing the difference between opinion and fact-checked research. This became apparent when the fifth-graders had to do a project on a famous artist.
"One student used Wikipedia when looking up Andy Warhol," she says. At the time, the site had fewer safeguards than it does now, such as not allowing unregistered users from making edits. "Essentially, this 11-year-old had information about Warhol as a sex maniac and off-color film producer."
While that information may not have been totally fictitious, Holland says, it also wasn't scholarly research, and it wasn't appropriate for someone that age. So she started steering students away from Wikipedia.
And then she began using other research sites like Answer.com, which gathers information from various sources, including Wikipedia, and allows users to compare sources. Over time, she realized that "sometimes, [Wikipedia] is the best, and fastest, way to get information in a manageable format."
These days, what has Holland, now with EdTech Teacher, more concerned is another site: Google.
"I think that Google is more detrimental to the research process than Wikipedia," she says. "At least Wikipedia is an actual source, with documentation and a means to cite information. On the other hand, students feel that Google is a source. I can't count the number of times that I have asked a student where they found their information and the response is 'Google.'"
Google, they believe, is the only place to get information.
"Kids expect research to be a fill-in-the-blank answer sheet rather than a process," she says, "and frequently want to switch topics because they claim that they 'can't find anything.'"
For many educators, what this has prompted in recent years is less of a focus on just saying no to sites like Wikipedia, and instead saying: Can we use this as a teachable moment? Starting in 2010, for example, dozens of college professors (including at Harvard) assigned students to write Wikipedia entries for credit about public policy issues as part of a project launched by Wikimedia. This past academic year, the students had contributed almost 5,800 pages worth of fact-checked information. Other educators, like O'Connor and Holland, are training students how to do research effectively in the digital age so that they make better decisions. As one blogger wrote about Wikipedia, "Educators shouldn't allow students to simply use the site at will, without filtering. Educators can use the site to teach about online credibility, fact checking, primary and secondary sources, crowd sourcing … rather than simply banning it."
This is exactly what is now happening in Burlington, Mass. Librarians in the elementary schools begin the process, teaching basic research skills and Internet safety. By middle school, teachers show students how to check sources. And then in the ninth grade, says Amy Mellencamp, Ed.M.'81, principal of the high school, there is a required, semester-long course that looks more deeply at Internet safety, research strategies, and appropriate resources.
Unfortunately, says Megan Birdsong, Ed.M.'94, a teacher librarian for the Santa Clara United School District, while this kind of training in critical thinking is more needed than ever for students, it's not always a priority everywhere.
"The credentialed librarians in my school district have … been pink-slipped," she says. "Less than 25 percent of California schools have credentialed librarians … and yet the skills that we teach seem more important than ever as discussions of new types and sources of information evolve."
Looking at the numbers, Wikipedia has more than evolved. Today, it consistently ranks in the top 10 visited sites on the Internet. As of August, there were more than 19 million available articles written in 280 languages. In interviews and during speeches, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales stresses that the site tries to be accurate, but also should only be used as a stepping stone when doing research, especially by students.
"For God's sake, you're in college," he said, speaking to students at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. "Don't cite the encyclopedia." A year later, answering a question from a Time magazine reader who complained about a professor who badmouthed Wikipedia as a legitimate research source, Wales no doubt surprised the reader by answering, "I would agree with your teachers that that isn't the right way to use Wikipedia. The site is a wonderful starting point for research. But it's only a starting point because there's always a chance that there's something wrong, and you should check your sources if you are writing a paper."
Clint Calzini, Ed.M.'04, a former teacher and principal, and current doctoral student at the College of William & Mary, says he uses Wikipedia occasionally in his doctoral research "to get a snapshot of something." He advises his undergraduate students to do the same.
"I have always told students that Wikipedia is fine to start with to get an understanding of something, but due to its open source, it should not be quoted directly and that they need to verify information from a qualified source."
He acknowledges that the site has gotten better over the years, especially with footnotes.
"A recent example is [the entry on] daylight savings time," he says. "It has a stunning level of detail and 121 footnotes!"
There's evidence that students, at least at the post-secondary level, may actually get this. A 2010 report, How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age, found that while nearly 75 percent of students reported using Wikipedia for school research, almost all of them said they turn first to course readings and consulted more with instructors and scholarly research than with Wikipedia.
Of course, not all educators have entirely jumped on the Wikipedia bandwagon. Matt Shapiro, Ed.M.'10, a secondary science teacher who wrote two op-eds in 2010 in support of students using Wikipedia — one for Education Week, one for Ed. — says he still sees some resistance from other teachers. Often, the level of acceptance depends on the subject matter. Anthony Parker, Ed.M.'93, principal of Weston High School, just outside of Boston, says his school doesn't have a uniform policy regarding Wikipedia, but some teachers feel more comfortable with the site's information than others.
"One math teacher thinks it is very good in computer science classes," he says. "As you might imagine, English and history teachers tend not to use it as much. In history, for example, it might be a decent starting place for a research project — with the caveat that you must check the Wikipedia source — but it is not counted as a source when the research project is turned in. As a former history teacher I am in the 'Wikipedia is not a great source and should be treated with great skepticism' camp."
Chris Kyle, a history professor at Syracuse University and an early critic of the site who has banned students from citing Wikipedia in papers since 2003, agrees.
"History is about being able to evaluate a number of sources, so it's important to know who wrote the piece: what viewpoint they've come from, what their religion is, etc.," he says. "I still feel like Wikipedia is an anonymous department store with no name, which is one-stop shopping. History, as a discipline, is about being able to shop around to a variety of specialists."
Luckily, Kyle says, students at the college level tend to use the site less as they move up in grade and get more sophisticated in their critical thinking. This may be why the librarians at the Ed School, who work primarily with master's and doctoral students, rarely use Wikipedia.
"All of us agree that Wikipedia never even comes up when we are discussing research strategies," says Gutman librarian Kathleen Donovan. "Students don't ask us about it, and we do not include it in our research strategy recommendations."
As the 10-year anniversary of Wikipedia comes to an end, where do educators go from here when it comes to their students and the site? A recent uproar on Wikipedia may provide one answer: This past summer, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin offered an alternative theory about Paul Revere's famous midnight ride. Many historians publicly disagreed with her, and immediately, suspected Palin supporters rushed to the Paul Revere Wikipedia page and changed information to better fit with Palin's version of history.
And here's where the answer, and lesson, come in: The truth, in a sense, won out. Not only did Wikipedia editors instantly swoop in to delete misinformation, but the entry also ended up with more information and footnotes than before Palin's comments. It also got people talking, thinking, and, perhaps best of all, laughing. As Stephen Colbert said of the controversy, just before he donned a Paul Revere–type hat on his show while ringing a bell, firing a musket, and riding a coin-operated kiddie ride, "That doesn't mean Palin wasn't raising awareness of history. Without her, no one would have checked into what really happened. And more importantly, it did happen."
Note: Wikipedia was used in the writing of this article.