The Wikipedia Debate

A recent study published in March of this year found that a majority of college students use Wikipedia as a research source, causing higher education professors & librarians alike to simultaneously shriek in horror.

The study, entitled “How today’s college students use Wikipedia in course-related research,” examined students attending six different US colleges and their use of Wikipedia. The not-necessarily-surprising results indicate that students use the multilingual, web-based, freely editable resource for course-related research, yet primarily for background information. Wikipedia was most commonly used in combination with other resources. The study’s authors concluded that the students’ use of Wikipedia met their information needs for coverage, currency, convenience and comprehensibility.

With this relevant study in mind, should college professors & academic librarians begin to rethink their aversion to Wikipedia? Clearly students are going to use it whether or not we think it’s appropriate. Instead of continually shunning this popular information source, maybe we need a new approach of acceptance… within certain limits, of course.

The Wikipedia debate is a perfect example of the pressing need to teach suitable forms of research to our 21st century students. Trying to successful regulate where they access their information is an overwhelming task in this information-saturated society. Instead, let’s start a conversation about some of these wildly popular information sites that cause professors & librarians to shudder when contemplating their information quality. If students develop a stronger understanding of when it’s appropriate to use information retrieved from the Wikipedias & the Google searches available to them, then conversely (and ideally) they’ll also develop a better understanding of what quality research looks like as they discover it in peer-reviewed journals & academic databases.

This research dichotomy is where the future of information is headed. As long as we commit early-on in the game to educating our students on the differences in information quality available to them as opposed to simply ignoring the appeal of sites like Wikipedia, then I believe we’ll begin shaping even more information-savvy students that have the added analytical skill-set of identifying quality information vs. collaboratively created information its drawbacks.

Then again, maybe I’m just an optimist (and *occasional* closeted Wikipedia user).

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