Like it or loath it, people use Wikipedia. Some use it as a quick reference for unimportant matters, or as a jumping-off point for more detailed research. Some use it, inappropriately, as a source in its own right: English Heritage was recently criticised by Building Design magazine for citing a Wikipedia article as evidence in a buildings listing case. When I mentioned on Twitter recently that I was in a discussion about using wikis (though not Wikipedia itself) as an aid to research student supervision, one of my contacts replied, referring to Wikipedia as “kinda… dodgy”.

As a publicly-editable wiki, Wikipedia works by and large as a repository for human knowledge, which is great. The problem is that some of the people who edit it choose to wilfully present incorrect information. For example, the birthday of the artist Titian was recently falsified in Wikipedia following an exchange in the British House of Commons; the edit was quickly traced back to the headquarters of the Conservative Party. Other users vandalise the site, while others still are simply wrong.

What about the case in Wikipedia’s favour? Four years ago, an article (subscription required, report in Wired here) published in Nature compared 42 articles between Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. The authors reported “eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, […] four from each encyclopaedia.” In minor errors, Britannica still had the edge, but not by much.

Whichever way you fall on the issue, an understanding of Wikipedia is an important element of information literacy which cannot be ignored. As such, it needs to be considered by educators. So what are people doing already?

On the one hand, we have Prof. Tara Brabazon of the University of Brighton, who bans her first year students (found via Christine Sexton’s blog post) from using Wikipedia or Google. Her aim in doing so is to force them to use and understand conventional scholarly literature so that they know what to look for in a reliable source.

On the other hand, we have Jeremy Boggs of George Mason University in America. His tactic is to have students actually contribute a well-researched article to Wikipedia, and then observe how it grows and changes over the remainder of the term. This time, the aim is to give students a direct insight into the workings of Wikipedia to inform future use.

It is this second approach that I think we, as educators, should be taking. The constructionist view of learning, which I find useful, suggests that learners will tend to stick with their existing beliefs until these are rendered untenable through experience. Since many university students have now grown up with Wikipedia, I feel that some may need to be shown the flaws in this model of publishing before they will engage with more conventional scholarly resources. Forcing them to use these resources without a reason (and “telling them” is not sufficient reason) could result in them learning simply that books are difficult to use because of the lack of search capabilities (Google Book Search notwithstanding).

And it’s not just students in school and university who need to be taught these skills. There are many professionals who don’t understand this amazingly useful resource. Either they regard it with suspicion and miss out on its benefits, or fail to understand its shortcomings and treat it as more reliable than it is. Either way, all educators must engage with Wikipedia and its flaws to ensure that our learners make the best that they can of it.

Do you actively engage with your learners about Wikipedia? What tactics do you use to help them learn to use it effectively? Or do you feel that it has no place in the classroom at all? Leave me a comment below.

By the way, if you’re interested in this debate, I can strongly recommend listening to the Digital Campus podcast, which has covered the issue right from the first episode. The most recent episode of James Clay’s e-Learning stuff podcast also covers Wikipedia in some detail.