I LOVE Wikipedia. Let me make myself clear: I think Wikipedia is one of the greatest things to ever happen (well except when the Bills picked up Ryan Fitzpatrick). Since the birth of Diderot, the encyclopedia has not seen such a revolutionary change. I really enjoy reading about everything from Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Salvador Dali, and Juon Miro, to phantogram, Hegel, and Nietzsche (I really enjoy modern art and philosophy). But there is a problem, was Foucault really an active Marxist up until his disillusionment with the movement in the 1968 Paris uprisings? Was his first lecture in the United States really at the University of Buffalo (cool right?)? Is the answer to these questions really that simple as Wikipedia makes it sound? Snooping around Wikipedia is fun, but it’s like playing Russian Roulette. You are taking a chance that what you are learning is wrong.
Of course, Wikipedia is only a side hobby: I would never use it to describe the Battle of Cannae in a paper. It’s because it would take forever to verify what you read and separate the truth from the fiction. But if I cannot even tell what’s the difference between the real and the fake on Wikipedia, how is a 7th grader supposed to?
Researching is hard. I wrote a paper last semester that had over 60 sources. It was difficult work finding them, and took even more time reading them than it would have to just Wikipedia search the topic. Do you see the potential problem in regards to giving students an online research project? It is so much easier to go into Google, type “Scottish Enlightenment political theory” and see what comes up then shift through the scholarly, peer reviewed, published articles on EBSCOhost or JSTOR. I’m not trying to say that student’s are lazy or they don’t want to work hard. For some students this is the case, but I like to believe most students value their education. But when it comes to researching for a project, they want to get it done as quickly as possible. Google will find you some great websites with loads of useful information, but how do you know it’s truthful?
I feel like learning how to spot reliable/unreliable information on a website while researching is one of the ways my high school failed me. I was told to go to a website, look for an author and publication date, and if it had these, it was probably reliable. If the information seemed ridiculous and deliberately doctored, then do not use it. But the more controversial a topic, the more likely any account of it is biased. If you are young enough to remember using the internet in school, do you ever remember any instruction on how to use the internet for researching that went beyond these basic steps?
See the problem? We have students using the internet to find information without any real knowledge of how to find the right information. I am not suggesting taking the internet out of the classroom. One, that’s an impossibility these days, and two, you’d be missing out on a HUGE resource. What we need to do is do a better job of teaching students how to use the internet and research databases. Wikipedia may be a good place to start, but students need to know how to build off of that foundation. I don’t have the answers to this problem. I am still faulty at telling the difference between what is real and what is fake on the internet. I know that when I come across a “fact” that seems extraordinary to check it against other websites. But determining if the little details are true or not is something that takes experience to get used to. I feel that, as it stands, we don’t do enough instruction on how to use the internet properly. But this is essential to becoming an informed researcher. Before unleashing a student onto the World Wide Web, we need to instruct them of its shortcomings. Otherwise we can be mislead and learn something that is not true.