I am currently the president of Women in Computer Science, a student organization at Arizona State University. One of the things the WCS does is go to various high schools in the area and talk about the field of computer science to students that are trying to figure out their college majors. Recently, we have switched our presentation style from a static, boring power point to something more along the lines of an anti-conference. We have students shout out topics that they are interested in and we discuss them as they relate to computer science, ASU and college life in general. One of the things that always gets me is when the subject of Wikipedia comes up.
Students often shout “Wikipedia is bad” and “Wikipedia is inaccurate”. They are going to high school in a generation where Wikipedia has already existed and high school teachers have already taken a position on it. It seems they have taken the stand that Wikipedia is bad and they tout its inaccuracy as the reason why. I believe that telling students this is a disservice while understanding their position. Teachers realize that as students trust and become reliant on Wikipedia, they will lose the education required at this stage in their life to go out and perform their own research. This is certainly a justified concern and should be addressed. I just don’t think that claiming it is inaccurate is the correct way to go about it.
Although the potential for inaccuracy exists due to Wikipedia’s user-generated content, case studies show that in general, Wikipedia is more accurate than more widely respected published sources. Because of their unpublished nature, Wiki articles can be corrected immediately when errors are discovered. On the other hand, an encyclopedia serving the same information would have to wait until the release of a new edition, or at least the release of an errata, before correcting their mistake. This lends Wikipedia much more flexibility in the face of inevitable human error.
Instead of its falsely perceived inaccuracy, what teachers should be demonstrating to students is Wikipedia’s incompleteness. The purpose of Wikipedia, or any other encyclopedia for that matter, is to provide a broad overview of a topic and not a detailed accounting of all aspects relating to the subject. One should use Wikipedia to become versed in a subject they had previously not heard of. After gaining a general picture of the concept, the researcher could then go into depth by reading specific journal articles and books on the topic. By having this relatively vague mental picture of the subject matter, the researcher is in a much better position to understand the in-depth material.
Wikipedia should not be seen as the enemy of research and neither should it be perceived as the compendium of all information. It should be used as a tool to gain a general understanding in a particular subject to prime the learner for in-depth research. Technical inaccuracies in Wiki articles are not of a major concern when Wikipedia is used in this way; the researcher will generally discover the inaccuracy when they dive into the specialized books and journal articles and can then quickly correct the mistake for the benefit of the next passer-by (citing their recently read article as the source). In the mean time, little harm was done because the researcher was not attempting to gain knowledge about specific details on the topic at the time the error was read.
In conclusion, I believe that if students were taught to use Wikipedia as a research tool, in the same way deprecated encyclopedias were used in previous generations, it will greatly enhance their learning and researching capabilities.