Why Wikipedia Doesn't Belong In The Classroom

Wikipedia's stated goal to be a neutral fact-based encyclopedia has enabled it to accumulate an incredible amount of useful information. But the service's very nature makes it unsuitable for classroom use in the minds of many teachers and professors - no matter how much students want to rely on it. 

As a part-time college teacher at the University of Notre Dame, my own position is clear: Wikipedia has no place in my classroom. (For more on Brian Proffitt's technology experiences in academia, see MIllennials: They Aren't So Tech Savvy After All.)

Mistakes Are Not The Problem

The gripes against Wikipedia are woven well into our urban fabric. Many is the tale of some silly mistake creeping into a Wikipedia entry - either through an honest error or a case of Wiki-vandalism. But errors are natural, and definitely human. Is that reason enough to prevent Wikipedia from being used as an educational tool?

That's part of it, but not the main reason I avoid using Wikipedia in the classroom. The biggest complaint for me is that Wikipedia's method of crowdsourcing the truth is often the very thing that trips up the service.

On the one hand, you have the idea of crowdsourcing: put enough humans in a room and they'll eventually produce something like Wikipedia. The problem is, they will also produce something like those tabloids you see in the checkout line at the grocery store.

One person's truth is another person's lie… which is why a project like Wikipedia has to be reviewed by a hierarchical system of editors who have the power to overrule things that are believed (such as the 37% of Americans who believe in UFOs) versus things that are true (that pesky speed-of-light limit Einstein came up with). Otherwise, in a purely crowdsourced Wikipedia, Elvis would still be alive and rocking out from his Area 51 fortress of solitude.

"Citogenesis" Leads To Trouble

But even that editorial framework is not enough. Because Wikipedia's editors rely heavily on cited material to back up the veracity of the material in Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is still instantly published, you can get phenomena like what XKCD artist Randall Munroe calls "Citogenesis."

Citogenesis may be behind what happened to distinguished author Philip Roth last week. The author of the novel The Human Stain found himself in the unique position of trying to change a factual error about this book in its Wikipedia entry… only to have his efforts rebuffed because Roth didn't have a second citable source. That's worth repeating: the author of the book - the ultimate source in this case - needed corroboration from someone else about what had inspired him. Yikes! According to an open letter from Roth published in the New York, s a Wikipedia administrator responded to his request saying: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

It is this kind of circular reasoning and blind spots that forms the basis of my avoidance of Wikipedia as a tool in the classroom: it's not just that Wikipedia is sometimes wrong, it's also that its error-correcting system can get so wound up in itself that it loses touch with common sense about fact-finding.

Other Professors Agree

According to Dr. Teresa Fishman, Director of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), I am not alone in my opinion of Wikipedia. Fishman - speaking only from her own experiences as director of the ICAI - said that "most instructors are not in favor of citing Wikipedia, and some would rather see it not used as a source at all."

That doesn't mean Wikipedia has no place in academia, though. Fishman related some innovative ways instructors at the college level have used Wikipedia to demonstrate how wikis work as a source of crowd-based content. Fishman described how one professor assigned his class to heavily revise or create new Wikipedia entries, working within the Wikipedia system to have the entry posted and ideally approved by the Wikipedia editors and peers.

This method demonstrates to students pretty quickly the advantages and limitations of Wikipedia, and how the system can be subverted at times. Fishman believes that this method is better than simply banning Wikipedia outright, since it gives students a chance to see for themselves how it works.

The Plagiarism Question

Critics also charge that Wikipedia is too often the souce of plagiarism in academic settings. In its annual survey of students, the ICAI has not determined if that's the case, but recent surveys have shown that many students, particularly those coming up from high school, see nothing wrong with using material from communally authored sources without citation in their own school work.

"The assumption is they are just common knowledge," Fishman explained. To combat this issue, "we hope that teachers will have students hold to the same standards of Wikipedia and cite the source of their thoughts."

Is Wikipedia poisoning the minds of our children? Hardly. Wikipedia is a good place to start research, I tell my students, but for academic work, it is not a good place to end.

Or cite.