Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wikipedia and credibility of sources

Just writing the title to this post almost made me gag--it seems we have too much discussion in the blogosphere already about Wikipedia and whether it is or isn't a credible resource.

But here's some more thought to add to the conversation.

I found it interesting this past week or two that there's been a heated debate on the EdTech listserv about this issue. This listserv is mostly read by K-12 teachers and technology coordinators, so there is a good mix of conservative and skeptical folks when it comes to new technology ideas, as well as the "jump on the technology bandwagon" folks. I won't go into what both parties argued in the debate because, really, it's the same argument that goes round and round on the internet about Wikipedia.

There were many in this debate who argued that whether you use or don't use Wikipedia as a resource, that you should definitely always be critical of all your sources and be sure you know where you get your information and if the source of the information is credible. In other words, we should be critical readers.

I definitely buy into that. I think the most important thing teachers can do nowadays is teach HOW to read, not WHAT to read, but that's another post for another dayl.

The funny thing about the debate on this listserv is that immediately after it finished, someone asked for a reference for the quote, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Of course, about a dozen people offered that this was a quote by Thomas J. Watson, IBM founder, in 1943.

What was funny, however, is nobody cited where they got this citation. If they did, they usually cited websites on technology history or sites that are a collection of funny (but who knows if they really said it) technology quotes. The most credible citation was one fellow who cited Wikipedia! The next best credible citation was from a secondary source--a Microsoft Research presentation by Gordon Wood at ACM 1997. Even more ironic, Wikipedia, the supposedly "unreliable resource", was the only cited reference to raise the warning voice that "there is no evidence he (Watson) ever made it (this quote)."

I brought this to the attention of the listserv, by saying that we were being hypocritical proclaiming how important it is to be critical of our resources when everybody agreed Watson said this quote, even though nobody could prove it. How critical were we, really, then? How thoughtful about the credibility of what we were quoting and saying? Not very much.

My point is that we shouldn't criticize people for using Wikipedia, and other like sources, if we are not critical and careful readers ourselves in the sources we use to get our information. Also, I agree with many of the posts in the listserv that argued that it is not about Wikipedia OR Encyclopedia Britannica, but rather an argument of WHEN Wikipedia and WHEN Encyclopedia Britannica. Both have different purposes, different kinds of claims to credibility, and different educational uses. So use both.

And above all, teach the kids that what matters is HOW they read and think, not WHAT they read.

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