One Educator’s Defense of the Free Encyclopedia
“If everyone reading this gave $3, we could keep Wikipedia thriving for years to come.”
Most of us recognize this appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—and I really do mean most of us. Wikipedia sees millions of unique visitors every day and dominates the page rankings in Google search results. Yet as numerous as its faithful users are its heavy critics, especially among educators. Some blatantly disallow it in the classroom while others treat it like greasy fast food. “There’s nothing wrong with it, kids, as long as you don’t mind a life of morbid obesity and early heart failure. But go ahead, feel free to use Wikipedia instead of your own honest research.”
Even in Wikipedia’s own article about academic use, students are cautioned that “Wikipedia is not a replacement for a reading assignment by your professor.” Any critique of Wikipedia will eventually include the word unreliable, but out of context, that word creates a serious misconception. Asking “Is Wikipedia reliable?” oversimplifies how we ought to evaluate source credibility. In this age of the internet, a very small percentage of web content receives any degree of fact-checking before going public. Rote assignment of “good” and “bad” web domains doesn’t teach someone to critically examine the content itself, and that’s the skill students need.
In a 2005 TEDGlobal talk, Wales claimed that Wikipedia began “with a very radical idea…for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” While all human knowledge sounds nice, it’s the idea of all humans contributing to that knowledge that makes people uncomfortable. In its defense, Wikipedia does work to mitigate the risks of dynamic entries:
- Certain popular and controversial pages are protected so only long-time users in good standing and administrators can make edits.
- Wikipedia clearly flags articles with factual disputes, subjective or self-promotional tones, contradictions, or no citations. While the page remains available, readers receive fair warnings.
- Revision histories and references are all publically visible.
In fact, it’s these very features that should make educators love this website. Wikipedia provides the perfect platform to teach about bias, audience, and the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Students can clearly see what citations look like and appreciate their importance. Wikipedia offers translations and a “simple English mode;” its page layout helps students gain a basic understanding of a subject and locate initial resources for further study.
On the flipside, banning Wikipedia from the classroom leads students to the false assumption that anything “not Wikipedia” is reliable. I’ve seen some pretty suspect quote websites (see my article) with accuracy ratings far worse than Wikipedia. Just because something ends in .edu or .org doesn’t mean it’s been updated recently or that it’s written clearly. Consider, a science book from 2002 would still call Pluto a planet. Textbooks can have typos; scientific articles can be retracted. Wikipedia articles are constantly monitored and reviewed. Saying Wikipedia’s not reliable is like saying it’s not safe to leave the house. Sure, some dangers exist, but that doesn’t mean we ought to lower the shades and lock the doors.
Good research should compare multiple academic sources anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. Here’s the bottom line: Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable, but I’ve yet to see a webpage—or textbook—that is 100% reliable on the literally millions of topics Wikipedia provides. We shouldn’t aim to find an impeccably accurate source; we should teach students to make their own judgments on a source’s credibility. Do I think a website I use almost every day with the mission to spread knowledge to people all over the world is worth $3? I’ve certainly given more money to lesser causes. Yes, Wikipedia. I read your plea, and I want to keep you thriving.
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