Monday, August 20, 2007

Wikipedia is not the Devil

Higher education has a fascination and a love/hate relationship with Facebook and Wikipedia. Today I want to focus on Wikipedia. In the case of Wikipedia it is mostly hate. As a matter of fact, in an act that would be laughable if it were not so pathetic, the history department at Middlebury College has boldly proclaimed thier stand against Wikipedia. How is that for academic freedom?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses a web site , designed and maintained by Virgil Griffith, that will show you "who" edited a particular Wikipedia article. Not really who but maybe just what domain they came from. If you are interested Wired has a more detailed and technical oriented article which I recommend.

It is no secret that the information in Wikipedia has at times been fiendishly skewed to reflect a particular bias. Here is a quote from the Chronicle of Higher Education article: You " gasp as an official with Diebold, the company that makes a controversial line of e-voting machines, deletes wholesale a 15-paragraph section describing computer scientists’ concerns with the devices." Gasp? Pretty melodramatic stuff. Doesn't surprise me at all though. But, it does scare me. If an official at Diebold is so ignorant as to the workings of Wikipedia that they think they can get away with deleting information which might reflect negatively on the company the have no business working on any kind of e-voting initiative. As a matter of fact, if I was a disgruntled employee with Diebold I just might use my work internet connection to do that kind of editing just to make the company look bad.

is a battle ground for influence and ideas. All media and forms of communication are. What the articles don't say is that edits and revisions are tracked, and Wikipedia is feature rich including the ability to undo such malicious nonsense. Everything has been done to make the whole process democratic and transparent. You have to register to edit an article and although you can certainly use a fake name and open up a freebie web email account, everything on the web is tracked. So, it is possible to tell which domain you came from. So you can tell that the deletions about the Diebold voting machine came from somebody from the Diebold domain. Anonymity is a pretty rare commodity on the web nowdays. I might not be able to know everything about you, but I can know a lot. The article at Wikipedia about Diebold now mentions the deletion of the information, and the whole history of edits, including the infamous deletion of information back in 2005, can be found online for you to read:

Personally I think that bias is a normal part of life. As a social worker I know that most social work journals reflect a particular bias. Walk into any academic library and the stacks and the shelves are full of material that has a bias. We are starting to discover that the "hard sciences" are not immune to bias. It is not just something that infects the social sciences or the humanities. What gets researched, funded, and published is in large part a political question rather than an empirical one. Don't kid yourself.

Many professors hate it when students use Wikipedia. Why don't those same critics put their expensive education to productive use and go online and become editors in their specialized field instead of just being critical? Most in academia struggle for the privilege to write articles for academic journals that will be read by fewer than one hundred people, but bulk at the idea of writing an article that will be available to millions? I also think it would be a pretty good assignment to give to students. Have students become contributers to an article and participate under the guidance of their professor. As far as I know that has not been done yet.

The quality of articles does vary wildly but I am at times awed at how much time and effort some of the contributors devote to the cause, and how knowledgeable they can be. An article from the Wall Street Journal eloquently describes the editorial wars that go on behind the scenes. These are not secret debates, but are open and available for anyone to read in the discussion section attached to any article. I don't think that Wikipedia was ever intended to be the authoritative answer on anything, and it isn't. It is one source. However, it is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement with over two million articles online in the English edition. Lets teach students to use it responsibly. Wikipedia is a good place to begin a search particularly when you do not know much about a topic. It is indeed foolish for anyone beyond grade 3 to stop at Wikipedia and not pursue other sources. Wikipedia is nothing more than a large dynamic open source encyclopedia.

are known to be full of errors, ignorance, and even bias or prejudice. Wikipedia is full of errors, ignorance, and even bias or prejudice. Not surprising. But, encyclopedias are also beautiful things. Encyclopedias are reflections of the human spirits desire to know, discover, and learn about the world around us. Many times we miss the real point of what Wikipedia is about.

Wikipedia is a dynamic way of knowing, sharing, collaborating, communicating, and organizing information. Perhaps the operative word here is dynamic. While older versions of encyclopedias had to wait for new editions to correct omissions or errors, Wikipedia is in a constant state of growth and development. The Wikipedia of tomorrow will be very much different than the Wikipedia of today. I believe it will also be a little bit better. Now, more than ever we need to teach our students about information literacy.

You can not fight this technology, all of the technology we are developing (including the powerful social networking infrastructure which includes Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube) but you can influence it. Universities and colleges should be encouraging their faculty and students to contribute to the effort rather than deride it.

By the way, do you want to know how to cite Wikipedia for your APA, MLA, or Turabian style paper? Here is an excellent article, from Wikipedia, on how to do just that:

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