Monday, December 15, 2014

The Tao of Wikipedia

Strange things sometimes happen to some tutors. They turn into large
toothy dragons (think Game of Thrones but bigger, scalier and hotter),
their scales glow molten red, and they unleash gobbets of green fire
from their nostrils which incinerate any poor student standing in front
of them, leaving only enough ash to be put into a small cup and made
into Greek coffee to be served to their unsuspecting relatives. What did
you do to deserve this? You uttered one small word: “Wikipedia”.

So what are the problems with Wikipedia? And is it ever permissible to use it in an assignment?

Wikipedia is a wonderful tool. If I want to know about a topic, I
generally start with Wikipedia. If I want to know more, I follow the
links from the Wikipedia article (and often there is more than one
article), or I google. But quite often Wikipedia is enough. I have what I
want to do. And it is nearly always accurate. Probably as often as
academically authoritative publications - though that is subject to much
dispute and febrile deployment of numbers. The problem for students
using Wikipedia to rely on in academic assignments is the problem of
authority. So the issue is what does authority mean and what counts as

Authority is what an expert has - someone who has studied the field for
many years and produced research and material that is valued by their
peers. Authority is socially constructed - there is no absolute
definition, no set of criteria by which we can all be impartially
measured. That is one of the reasons why theories and ideas come and go.
That is also why the pinnacle of academic achievement is not writing
books as you might think. It is having articles published in peer
reviewed journals. You write an article; it is vetted by other experts
in the field and if, in their view, it passes muster, it gets published.

When we look at material in a book or an article, we want to know how
reliable it is. We can do this by examining the text in itself. We ask
for instance whether what is said is coherent - do all the bits fall
into a structure that makes sense. We ask if it is comprehensive - do
the statements or suggestions offered cover all of the examples in the
field or just some of them. We ask if it is consistent - does it work
the same way in different circumstances; are the conclusions followed
through properly. That is the kind of thinking that you as students are
supposed to be practising. We talk a lot about active reading, and you
may have been listening when we talked about it. Active reading is
always asking this kind of question of the text.

Authorship also matters, though. Not just what is said, but who said it.
Authorship is a proxy for reliability in the text. If this text was
written by an expert acknowledged by their peers, then we can assume
reasonably safely that what is said on the page is reliable. We can use
it to back up our ideas in the reasonable certainty that no horrible
accidents will occur.

If we had the time, we would read every paragraph of every page with
proper, active thinking attention. We would examine every word, every
nuance. We would test everything. We do not have that amount of time.
Also, very often, we do not have the necessary level of skill or
knowledge to be able to test the material rigorously. So we rely on
proxies. We assume that what is in an OU textbook or web page is
authoritative. We assume that what has been said by an acknowledged
expert, or what has been published in a reputable journal, is reliable.
We can still disagree with it. I give a hearty inward - and sometimes
outward - cheer when a student for the first time disagrees with
something they have read in an OU text (and gives reasons). It shows
they are thinking independently.

But here is the problem with Wikipedia. We can test the words on the
page in the same way as we test the words on the page of a book. But we
struggle when it comes to authorship. We can examine the history of the
Wikipedia page, and we can see exactly who has written what. But that
does not necessarily leave us any the wiser, as we have no idea who
Chris Bloggs is or what their record of achievement in the field is.
Most Wikipedia pages are in fact, I would argue, authoritative,
certainly reliable enough for all normal purposes. For instance, much
medical information is now available via Wikipedia that would not
normally reach the general public, and is put there by people who know
what they're talking about. (See “Wikipedia: Meet the men and women who write the articles”)
But to use it as a source for an academic argument, you would need to
test both the text and its author in a way which you will not usually
have the time or the tools for.

The overall temperature of academic debate about Wikipedia is changing. Here is a list of articles about various aspects.
 I think the academic world is gradually getting used to the idea that
they cannot control knowledge, and certainly cannot control students.
But the deal is that students need to learn, from day one, that they
must use their judgement on everything they meet, not just on the web
but everywhere. You should read Wikipedia critically: you should read
everything else just as critically.

Much of the learning students do never gets into their assignments. That
is a good thing; I would hate us to kill our students with test
fatigue. In my view much vital learning is interstitial: it happens in
the spaces between assignments, when learners are using their own
resources and their own roadmap to direct their studies. But testing,
particularly via assignments, is also a valuable learning tool - it
provides for different kinds of learning, the kind where distillation,
selection and the making of arguments come to the fore. For the purposes
of in between learning, Wikipedia is brilliant, provided you treat it
in the way you should treat everything you read, keeping your wits about
you when you use it. For the purposes of assignment learning, it is
best left behind, underneath the text you write, unless you are
confident you can defend the reliability of the evidence you use from
it. That would also be a kindness: it will prevent some of my colleagues
from imploding.

Khondoker Hafizur Rahman

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