The New York Times reports that the Middlebury College history department has banned citations to Wikipedia as a resource for papers and exams, after six students in a Japanese history class asserted an incorrect fact on an exam. The department did not ban use of Wikipedia, recognizing that doing so “would have been impractical, not to mention close-minded, because Wikipedia is simply too handy to expect students never to consult it.” I asked students today about their use of Wikipedia as a research tool. One rejected it categorically, because she is uncomfortable with a resource that can be so readily changed. Others were not aware of the “peer-production” aspects of Wikipedia. One student said Wikipedia was better than 15 bound encyclopedias because it is up-to-the-minute and conveys information on more topics. A few students described Wikipedia metaphorically as like a conversation with a friend who holds himself out as knowledgeable: it can be a good place to go for ideas and overall information, but should not be relied on as a sole source. They said that they investigate the sources Wikipedia cites before relying on any of it. How to determine whether an Internet source is reliable is another question, of course.
There are no conclusions to draw from these anecdotes. This classroom was not a cozy forum for a student to acknowledge Wikipedia as his or her sole source for academic knowledge. Most students were quiet, and some may have wondered what the fuss is about.
I will continue to worry that too many people can’t distinguish between good and bad information, online and off. Wikipedia isn’t the cause, but it can be a symptom.