Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wikipedia 101 (Or why Wikpedia is a Stem Cell, not Cancer) #change11

Clive Thompson's Wired article, "Why Kids Can't Search," which I previously wrote about here, is worth revisiting for what it suggests about the skill sets we should be teaching students. In a sense, it is a call for certain elements of Connectivism. It also reminded me that educators spend way too much time decrying the information on the internet and not enough time teaching kids how to take advantage of it.

As Thompson writes, the ability to use search engines critically is now an essential skill, along with Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic:

Consider the efforts of Frances Harris, librarian at the magnet University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. (Librarians are our national leaders in this fight; they’re the main ones trying to teach search skills to kids today.) Harris educates eighth and ninth graders in how to format nuanced queries using Boolean logic and advanced settings. She steers them away from raw Google searches and has them use academic and news databases, too.

But, crucially, she also trains students to assess the credibility of what they find online. For example, she teaches them to analyze the tone of a web page to judge whether it was created by an academic, an advocacy group, or a hobbyist. Students quickly gain the ability to detect if a top-ranked page about Martin Luther King Jr. was actually posted by white supremacists.

This reminds me of George Siemens' conclusion in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, which I've blogged about here. Siemens writes:
The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.
All teachers know that the internet can lead to terrible papers cobbled together from questionable sources and misinformation. Even worse, it increases the opportunities for plagiarism.

However, access to the internet can also be an opportunity for students to connect directly to people and sources, and to become part of a network of red-hot information. We need to teach them how to use search engines and social networking effectively. Too often, students are discouraged by instructors who fail to understand the structural changes in the flow of information.

The rise of Wikipedia is a perfect example. I always give my students a brief lesson in what I call Wikipedia 101.

I start out by asking for a show of hands: "How many students have been told by a teacher to never use Wikipedia for a paper?" They all raise their hands. Then I ask, "Keep your hands up if you've ever used Wikipedia for a paper?" All hands stay up. The Chronicle echoes my findings here.

Are these students being willfully disobedient? Do they simply lack the basic capacity for critical thinking? Are they lazy?

Not really. They're being standard internet users. Wikipedia generally provides wonderful (if,a t times, flawed) overviews of topics for the uninformed. A few different studies rank Wikipedia's accuracy alongside "real" encyclopedias (though they always note other issues).

Students are going to use Wikipedia. We need to teach them how to use it effectively, how to explore the source material, how to be critical and ask questions, and how to eventually move beyond mere tertiary reference sources and onto legitimate primary and secondary sources.

I don't let my students cite any encyclopedias, or dictionaries, or reference sources. These sources are generally too, well...general. (I'd much rather see, for example, Ernest Hemingway's definition of writing than any boring dictionary's.) However, I tell them it's a great place to start if you know nothing about the topic, or if you want to discover people, events, ideas, or terms for further study.

Wikipedia is the product of millions of hours of labor, mostly written by geeks and scholars and know-it-alls (but also hacks, vandals, and idiots). It's a great resource for general knowledge. But please, students, be critical, ask questions, and, once you've gained some insights, move beyond reference sources and dig into more specific and credible information.

Wikipedia is not a cancer on knowledge; it is more like a collection of stem cells: unformed and filled with potential. But it must be developed beyond its current stage.

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