Dear teachers: Wikipedia is not evil

Dear Fellow Teachers,

Quit doing that. Demonizing Wikipedia, that is. Your hearts are in the right place: You want students to use reliable sources for information. I get that and I want the same thing.

But here’s the deal. I teach current events in all of my social studies classes. These current events often involve students asking me questions that I can’t answer. Sometime before winter break, for example, we were discussing the discovery of supermassive black holes. A student asked ‘What’s the speed of light?’ I used Wikipedia to answer the question (299,792,458 meters per second, according to Wikipedia). I was instantly greeted, for about the 10th time this year, by a student saying “But you can’t trust Wikipedia. Anyone can write on there.” Yes, it would have been an excellent moment to teach them about WolframAlpha (here’s WolframAlpha’s page on the speed of light). Or I could have simply typed ‘speed of light’ into Google and received the same answer from Google itself.

Now, you might be saying ‘That’s good. WolframAlpha and Google are much more reliable sources than Wikipedia.’ But here’s the problem: Students don’t know that. And they never question any other site that I bring up. And I don’t believe most students would understand the difference between the data that Google itself provides when Google knows the answer (which is reliable) and the search results that Google provides (each of which needs to be evaluated and contextualized to determine its reliability).

Evaluating sources and understanding the reliability of what you read is a major skill we should be teaching all students. But it is so much more than teaching students to not trust Wikipedia. Treating Wikipedia as a pariah is an utter shame. Not just because I find it useful, but because Wikipedia is one of the most important inventions of the Internet age. It is certainly the best resource I have found for learning about a wide range of topics.

Or here’s another way to think about it: I value curiosity. And Wikipedia is amazing for fostering my curiosity. Compare the Wikipedia entry on the speed of light to the Encyclopedia Britannica equivalent and you will see what I mean. The Wikipedia article weighs in at over 7,500 words, with subsections, 10 visuals, 2 tables, and 138(!) citations. Encyclopedia Britannica’s article is a scant 117 words with only 4 visuals. And the Wikipedia article is the only one that mentions the September 2011 observations at CERN of possible faster-than-light neutrinos. It isn’t a close contest. Wikipedia provides deeper, more compelling and timely content.

In the end you and I might need to agree to disagree on Wikipedia. If you can’t get past the whole everyone-can-edit-it thing then I can’t convince you it is great. But could you at least tone it down a bit and teach students to challenge every source of information? I would greatly appreciate it.

Sincerely,

Ryan

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