Fuse #8

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wikipedia As a Teaching Tool

Like many librarians I have a love/hate relationship with Wikipedia. On the one hand, the very marrow of my bones starts to quiver whenever I hear someone refer to it as a research tool (someone = my husband). On the other hand, what's my one-stop destination of I want an all-purpose definition for something like, oh say, rutabagas.

What place could Wikipedia possibly have in the classroom? As always it's Monica Edinger with the answer. When a technology guru spoke to her class about the pedia of wiki, she took one look at a crummy plot summary of Charlotte's Web on the site and knew she had a lesson on her hands. The post is, in fact, so useful that next time I see Monica I'm going to try to wrangle her into making it an article for School Library Journal or some other national publication. Necessary reading, to say the least.


At 9:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm interested in this post, as I spend a lot more time on Wikipedia than I ought to. Is it widely considered to be untrustworthy? I'm familiar with the ready potential for bad edits to momentarily stain specific articles, but every investigation and study of Wikipedia I've heard of concludes that it's as reliable, and far more comprehensive, than your typical set of hardbound encyclopedias.
Not to say that those hardbound encyclopedias are very thorough repositories of knowledge either, but Wiki goes a lot further. Last night I did a little research into Intelligent Design, and read an overview article that stretched to over 10,000 words. And each of its major topics led to expanded articles on the finer points.
My wife, who's getting her Phd in physics, even finds Wikipedia to be as good as her old college texts whenever she needs reminding about Jane Doe's Constant or The Theory of X or whatever.
Of course, Wikipedia is stronger in some areas than others. It's your one-stop-shop for Babylon 5 episode summaries, but might not be as strong when it comes to kids' lit. Then again, that Charlotte's Web summary could have been a lot worse, and the kids' summary, while far more winning, unfortunately wouldn't weet Wiki's standards of encyclopedic neutrality.
Interestingly, the current Wiki entry for C's Web appears to contain some of the best elements of the class's revision, though none of the parts that were inappropriate in tone. Which just leads me to appreciate Wikipedia's strengths all the more, as a constantly evolving and improving (and, I suppose, intelligently designed) body of general knowledge.
I didn't mean to make that ID analogy when I started this post. Sorry about that.

At 9:39 PM , Blogger rams said...

Last I heard any Wiki article checked by an expert ran about 20% inaccurate. See Neil Gaiman's site for the reasons for his loss of initial enthusiasm; they culminate with a friend complaining of errors. "Well, go on and fix them," urges Neil. "I did. Two days later they'd been fixed back," replied his unhappy friend.

A nice, fast way to check a subject, especially something terribly recent. Just remember that at least 20% of what you now know is wrong. (Now that would be a good assignment -- find the 20% poison pill in the Wiki article. Better than word-search games.)

At 10:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's about what I heard as well. The last NPR story I caught on the subject, though, pointed out that other general pupose encyclopedias have about the same level of inaccuracy.
This wouldn't surprise me it it were true. Every time I've read an article in a major newspaper on a subject about which I, arguably, had a fair degree of knowledge, I've found multiple factual errors. Every time. Now, I only find these kind of articles a couple times a year (I'm not very smart), but I've taken this batting average to mean that virtually every article I read is flawed in one way or another.
Anyway, I'm certainly not trying to hold Wiki up as a serious research tool--does anyone? But it's just the thing if you suddenly can't function in the middle of the day until you remind yourself what George Washington Carver did, or the atomic weight of lithium.

At 10:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just reminded, by the way, of the recent Reuters news story that erroneously reported that Queen Elizabeth "lays up to 2000 eggs a day."

Wow, I must really be avoiding work.

At 10:52 PM , Blogger Nancy said...

"But it's just the thing if you suddenly can't function in the middle of the day until you remind yourself what George Washington Carver did, or the atomic weight of lithium."


I use wikipedia every day, multiple times, but not for serious research. As a trivia tool it's pretty cool.

At 4:03 AM , Blogger Monica Edinger said...

"Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?" (http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?%20id=z6xht2rj60kqmsl8tlq5ltqcshc5y93y) in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education is really interesting. Evidently wikipedia is more reliable in certain areas than others.

If I had time I'd have my kids create more material for the CW entry (not just re-revise the plot summary:) as it is mighty scant, focusing more on sales and movies than the book itself (and how it came into being as well as all the wonderful associated material).


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