Re: Does Wikipedia hurt scholarship?

So, the wiki debate continues. In the latest issue of AFT’s American Teacher, the pro and con discussion of the month is about Wikipedia. Here, in very stark terms, are what I consider to be very traditional views about the academic research process (Anderson) juxtaposed with a more reasonable interpretation of research, collaboration, and the changing nature of literacy (Locke). I want to look at how each of them define what it means to be a teacher of researchers (at the K-12 level) to make this point clear.

Dixie Anderson, a librarian, suggests that,

As educators, it is our responsibility to hold academic resources to the highest of expectations. We need to become role models in the research process. Credibility and responsibility are the two most important aspects of research. And teaching students the patience to delve into credible resources is the task and responsibility of the educator. We, as educators, cannot condone lazy techniques or unreliable research tools.

I read her comments to mean, essentially, this: we are the gatekeepers for students and, thus, can only recommend sources that the gatekeepers who monitor us (media, publishers, authorities) let us delve into because we can trust them. She makes the claim that “credibility and responsibility” are critical to good research, yet denies her students the opportunity to assess credibility and take responsibility for what they find in Wikipedia.

Then, in what I consider to be a very effective counterpoint, Teb Locke, a technology teacher and co-host of Teachers Teaching Teachers Webcast, refutes this idea. While he is not talking about Wikipedia per se, his argument makes sense in that context. He claims:

Further, wikis facilitate a defining feature of traditional scholarship: publication. Changes to a wiki are immediately “published” for the entire world to see. Not only does this provide a real-world motivation for students, it also allows them to experience writing and editing as a dynamic endeavor.

Unlike a more static writing process in which publication marks the end of revisions and the end of the process, wiki writing is instantly published while undergoing infinite revisions. The wiki therefore brings literacy and accountability to a whole new level. Students are not simply skimming for content, they are constantly evaluating from an editor’s point of view in order to improve what they are reading/publishing.

AFT – Pubs-Reports – American Teacher – October 2006 – Speak Out

Locke, in his example of having students write for a class wiki, describes the ways in which students become producers of knowledge, or texts, rather than just consumers. If we rely on the old model of research, where students bring empty note cards to be filled by drinking at the vessels of knowledge, then the argument that Andersen makes holds water. If, however, we recognize that students have, and will continue to have, multiple and conflicting sources from which to draw, then we realize that it doesn’t.

This, of course, doesn’t even scratch the surface about the cultural, social, political, racial, gendered, colonial, and economic critiques that one could make of most traditional research paper sources (encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and, wait for it… books) and the fact that even the most “credible resources,” as Andersen call them, all have a rhetorical purpose for creating the text they have. We seem to ignore rhetoric when it doesn’t serve us, however, I won’t go into that right now.

Suffice it to say that we need to stop looking at Wikipedia as an excuse to hold on to our out-dated mindset about what and where students learn as well as who they learn from.

Wikipedia helps us think about how and why, instead, a goal we should all be striving towards given the nature of knowledge, rhetoric, and the literacies our students use.

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