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.
Students are still citing Wikipedia even after the professor says it’s not an acceptable source? If the students are simply dropping off their papers on the last day of
class, and they have no chance to get feedback or correct their
mistakes, then it’s no wonder that each new set of students will make
the same mistakes.
But if the same students keep doing it, perhaps that needs to add a homework assignment where students have to submit their sources two weeks before the paper is due, so that students who bomb that assignment have time to learn what other sources are available.
Many students have heard their teachers warn them against using the site, but only after I show them how easy it is to edit an article, and they realize that they, too, could add whatever they want, does it really sink in that they have to be critical about what they read (not just on Wikipedia, but everywhere).
Banning the site deprives them of the chance to learn that lesson.
As preparation for writing a traditional research paper, students could add to the Wikipedia entry for their school or community, or they could look for other acceptable sources and add them to the Wikipedia entry.
When students are writing about some areas of popular culture, culture, user-authored sites such as Wikipedia and Urbandictionary, or game databases like MobyGames are actually far more useful than academic sources (which take months or even years to appear).
Regardless of the subject, a reading assignment could involve reading a discussion about “neutral point of view” or “notability” in a contested article, so that students can see for themselves just how knowledge is constructed in Wikipedia. They could compare the “neutral” Wikipedia article to a pair of articles that argue “for” or “against” a particular interpretation