Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In defense of Wikipedia . . .

Last week, I was working with a group of teachers, showing them Google Earth and talking about some ways it can be used in education. Some of the overlay files I was using included location spotlights with links to wikipedia articles. So, of course, the topic was raised, "Diane, what do you think of having students use wikipedia as a source?" This was a fifth grade teacher who asked, and a colleague of mine for some time. Also, during the time I taught fifth grade (five years), she and I were both teaching fifth grade for the last of those five years.

Let me first say that there are times I don't let my students use wikipedia as a source. Sometimes it's because I am not allowing web sources on a particular project, and sometimes it's because I want them to broaden their searches. But I am not completely opposed to its use. I do warn my students, though, that just like everything else on the Internet, it must be evaluated for accuracy.

But so must the more traditional sources. Ready for a case in point?

Yesterday, one of our fifth grade students faced a dilemma about her topic, Molly Pitcher.

Now, Ms. Pitcher's real name was Mary Hays. The student's book source said that Mary's husband was William Hays. Encarta 2001 on CD-ROM said that Mary's husband was John Hays. Two "trusted" sources with two conflicting "facts." What to do?

I happen to keep a full set of the 1991 (gasp!) World Book encyclopedia in our lab. I gave the student P for Pitcher and H for Hays and told her to start in the P volume and see what she could find. Then I logged on to the available computer next to her and went to see what wikipedia had to say on the matter.

Here's the verdict:
Book: William
Encarta: John
World Book: William
Wikipedia: William

WHAT? You mean Encarta was wrong and wikipedia was right?

Of course. Both had to be typed in at some point by human hands, and humans are prone to error, whether their work is published by a software giant onto CD-ROMs or constantly updated by caring scholars and lay people on the Internet. In fact, the CD-ROM version of the "truth" cannot be changed. You have to buy a newer disc to get updated information. (And it would be interesting to look into whether Encarta has changed this error in later versions.) Wikipedia is constantly being reviewed by many different sets of eyes, along with their corresponding brains and hands. So errors can be caught and made right.

So, what did I tell my students? If you ever get conflicting information when you are doing research, get two more sources to help you figure out what the real truth is. Beware of bias and deliberately misleading information. And don't believe everything you read.

Nothing new there.


SMUHSD Tech Professional Development said...


Thanks for the nice comment on my blog. I guess I'm not the only one dealing with resistant teachers. I think my solution is going to be to move into Administration and use the evaluation process to make the changes in at least one school. I do have the reputation of being persistent and in people's faces over things, so I guess I'm not the type to just let things lie.

I had Chris Walsh out with 30 of our district teachers last Friday. The question of wikipedia and accuracy came up and he answered just as you did. There are many, many eyes looking at things and if there is a mistake it can be corrected easily. Also, he emphasized the fact that all sources have failings and that for any source to be deemed reliable, it should be validated by another source. (Just like you said!)

The other thing you want to point out to people is that wikipedia authors get rated and if their information is deemed unreliable, their account is restricted. This has happened to many aides for members of congress, where the member's page has been changed to put the congressperson in a better light, only to be changed by someone who knows the truth.

Happy Trails!

Kyle - GCT

Diane E. Main, GCT NorCal 2006 said...

Found another error in Encarta 2001 CD-ROM on Friday. The date of birth for John C. Fremont was off by ten days. World Book 1991 only had a year of birth, so we couldn't use it to check this fact. The student's book source had the same exact date as wikipedia, so wikipedia is now two for two.

Go wiki, witcho' bad self, it's yo' birthday . . . .