By Nate Anderson | Published: November 27, 2007 – 11:58PM CT
Banning, though, is very much alive, and Wikipedia knows about it too, but for different reasons. The online encyclopedia has been on the receiving end of many a ban hammer; China isn’t too thrilled about the service or its penchant for hosting articles on troublesome topics like Tiananmen Square, and the Dutch Justice Ministry wants its 30,000 employees to stop making Wikipedia edits from government computers. But educators, well, they love it. Right?
Not all of them. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania’s Express-Times reported on a local school librarian who put up her own “Just Say No to Wikipedia” signs in the computer lab. The entire Warren Hills Regional School District in New Jersey has also blocked access from all school computers. The basic problem, according to officials, is that Wikipedia’s unverified accuracy and ease of use are making it too tempting for students to use as a primary source.
Wikipedia officials certainly don’t dispute that characterization and have never held the site up as a tool for academic work, except as a jumping-off point. But the New Jersey response is interesting in that it represents an extreme response to the problem.
Perhaps it’s a necessary one, though. I checked in with my wife, a college professor who assigns plenty of papers to her students. Despite an unceasing stream of comments about how Wikipedia cannot be used as a scholarly source, students without fail will use it every semester and cite it in their work, even in upper-level classes. The site is just so easy to use that the temptation to do so can be overwhelming… especially when it’s 1 AM and the library has closed.
These are bright kids, and they’re in college. Middle-school and high-school students may need even more “encouragement” to avoid sources like Wikipedia.
Turning Wikipedia into a learning opportunity
But banning may not be the best way to do that. The issue goes beyond Wikipedia and concerns over accuracy, for one thing. Britannica isn’t a viable source for most high school or collegiate work, either; should we ban it for students’ own good? And what about textbooks? They offer an introduction to new ideas but are rarely appropriate sources for academic papers; indeed, their best use in such cases is as a jumping-off point.
Besides, Wikipedia is easily available from home and personal computers, so maybe what’s needed is more “source literacy” and media education instead. Banning Wikipedia also gives it the sweet scent of forbidden fruit as well, and it invites the same sort of circumvention techniques that students have used to get around MySpace blocks.
Denise Gonzalez-Walker, writing yesterday on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s education blog, argued for making Wikipedia a learning opportunity. “It’s a shame that the teachers and librarians quoted in the article didn’t take advantage of the situation—finding inaccurate information on Wikipedia—by having their students revise the Wikipedia site with their own research, or engage in broader discussions about how authority and truth will be staked out in new media,” she said.
It’s a great idea, but are students in places like the Warren Hills Regional School District really going to fact-check every stat they dig up from Wikipedia? And if they do so, why use Wikipedia at all?
Still, teaching kids how to critically analyze information sources is an increasingly valuable skill in an information economy. If teachers want to use Wikipedia as a way to talk about this, more power to them.