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Don’t Use Wikipedia

At least not if you’re a history student at Middlebury college.

The small New England school has decided that students will no longer be able to use Wikipedia as a reference source for their work.

This came after half a dozen students cited incorrect information taken from the online encyclopedia on a test.

But the errors on the Japanese history test last semester were the last straw. At Dr. Waters’s urging, the Middlebury history department notified its students this month that Wikipedia could not be cited in papers or exams, and that students could not “point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.”

That sounds like a pretty narrow minded approach to collaborative material from the web (“any similar source that may appear in the future”?).

But Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s founders, is siding with the history department.

I don’t consider it as a negative thing at all.

Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested – students shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn’t be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either.

Agreed. However, I don’t blame the students either. In K12 education, we don’t really teach kids how to find, manage, and validate information and they probably don’t get much of that from their college instructors either.

One part of that process is understanding that any general reference source is only a starting point in their research.

Another is, never trust a single source – especially one that I can edit. :-)

wikipedia, middlebury college, information literacy


  1. Jonathan

    I’m surprised this is news. In my high school most of the kids know not to cite Wikipedia. I discuss it with them (and I teach math – I know their English teachers talk about it, and I think their history teachers as well).

    And Middlebury is a fairly fancy place. I am amazed the students thought it was okay.

    About internet sources in general: Any kind of idiot can put up a web page; it takes a special kind of idiot to trust that page.

  2. dave cormier

    Interesting… Any idiot wouldn’t trust a webpage. It’s a sorry state of affairs. What then, in twenty years when we aren’t using paper.

    Are we to trust, then, the things that are written on paper. Of course not, is the common reply, only good sources.

    How often do we define ‘good’ as sources that agree with our own personal viewpoint. A possible reply to this is that there are ‘objective’ sources. People who balance all sides of the issue, do peer reviewed research, and get (close to) the truth.

    well… i don’t really believe that is possible. I tell my students to write all of their sources in their work cited page. Any single belief in ANY single source is worthless. Knowledge, if it means anything, refers to an accumulation of the things that we agree on. I’m not willing, in this case, to exclude anyone from that ‘we.’ Nor, conversely, depend on any given person or group for it.

    Throw wikipedia into the stream of knowledge I say. Soon enough, things will become true just for being on a webpage, much like they have been ‘becoming true’ in books for years.

  3. Lee Dixon

    “In K12 education, we don’t really teach kids how to find, manage, and validate information and they probably don’t get much of that from their college instructors either.”

    You’ve said this several times in other postings.

    Q. Where can we find a text covering these skills?

    Q. In the case of student research, what other sources would they have access to… practically speaking… than web sites (not necessarily relying on Wikipedia)or a trusted encyclopedia. Reference sources just aren’t available in most towns. I atruggled with this as a teacher 25 years ago… prior to computers, let alone the internet and web.

  4. jake

    Hey, I have a question of a rather person nature that I dont want to ask publically and I want to make sure it gets directly to you as opposed to someone youve perhaps hired to screen these comments. look forward to hearing from you, thanks!

  5. dave cormier

    the small school problem is a good point lee. As for a text that covers those skills… it’s almost a contradiction. Simply trying to create one would necessarily point people in a given direction and take away the responsibility of combing through the knowledge.

    The biggest problem with trying to teach research is that you can only really assess ‘best practices’ in a state controlled way. If you are going to judge is someone has done a ‘good job’ its going to be too subjective for most school boards.

  6. Andrew Pass

    One of the greatest challenges about research is that a lot of it is intuitive. What sources should you check? There are thousands of sources out there on just about every topic. Ten years ago I used to look at the publisher of a text to help determine its validity. But today, that is no longer smart. Since, smart people often publish things on their own. I’d suggest that for a middle or a high school classroom you should teach students that they want to validate their information in at least three sources. Then, they should ask if there are other ways of viewing the issue that should be considered. I do believe that it is OK to trust the validity of Wikipedia if you triangulate it with other sources. I don’t think that it is OK to trust the validity of Stephen Hawking if you don’t validiate his information for yourself in some way.

    Andrew Pass

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