Friday, April 6, 2012

Putting Wikipedia in its Place: Problems and Pitfalls

I was recently introduced to a graphic (shown below) which apparently summarizes some of the latest information related to Wikipedia, the massive online community-created encyclopedia. In the knowledge society, information and knowledge is paramount, and having access to current, accurate, useful knowledge is absolutely vital. So, how important is a site like Wikipedia in this current society? Here are my thoughts.

Information is Not Instruction
Wikipedia provides its readers with information, but as the great learning researcher Dr. David Merrill often says, "information is not instruction." As a summarizing source, Wikipedia provides readers with surface-level, basic knowledge. This can be seen as a lower level of learning- we can remember what we learn, perhaps understand it but may not be able to apply, analyze, or evaluate with what we learn from a Wikipedia page. There is a fair amount of educational research indicating that to achieve these higher levels of learning, people need to have specific instructional experiences that will help them gain more meaningful learning.

Wikipedia does not encourage critical thinking. As members of society, we have to be very careful about what we believe - we must be willing to check the facts, go deeper, look at multiple perspectives, draw conclusions. Accepting things in wikipedia as fact without thinking is dangerous, particularly because (in my experience) the information is often inaccurate.

Wikipedia is Not Peer-Reviewed  
Clearly there is some level of "peer-review" in Wikipedia, but in this review process, one is left to ask who the peer is. (I discuss this further in number 1 below).
Is Wikipedia Bad?
No, Wikipedia is very good, a tool that I sometimes use. Wikipedia is the premier example of user-created content, a very powerful democratic and pragmatic movement. My thoughts in this post are not intended to slam the site, just to put it in its place. Remember, "information is not instruction," and if we want members of our society to really understand and be able to use knowledge in meaningful ways, we must provide experiences (in the form of well-designed instruction) that will help them gain the necessary knowledge and skills.

My Thoughts on the Graphic
As I mentioned above, I was directed to a graphic that summarized some information about Wikipedia. It is an attractive graphic, but I find it misleading, in some ways- not that the information is necessarily inaccurate (though it doesn't provide information sources for what it is representing), but that the way it is organized might imply certain things that are not accurate. I will share the graphic below and then share my critique.

 Here are some observations and critiques of the image above:
  1. Comparing college textbooks and wikipedia implies that Wikipedia is almost as good, but the comparison is on accuracy and not on the actual content. A textbook is likely much more effective at teaching than wikipedia because of the strategies that are potentially used in the textbook. Also, which college texts and wikipedia articles are being compared? Which subjects? What level of education (Associates, Bachelor, Master, Doctorate)? This information is not provided, and I am confident that there was no comparison of all Wikipedia articles and all college textbooks. I know for a fact that the Wikipedia articles that summarize key knowledge in the field of instructional design (you can review it here) and instructional technology (you can view it here) have fundamental inaccuracies, and when I attempt to change the pages, the changes are sometimes rejected by someone else who is not a scholar in the field as I am. This is a huge problem.
  2. Comparing Wikipedia and libraries is also a poor comparison. Because Wikipedia is in a sort of a "encyclopedia" format, it is meant to be a summary of knowledge. This kind of summary can be useful, but without deeper resources like those found in the library it would be surface-level information and likely not deep enough to delve into a field to any meaningful level.
  3. there is probably not a lot of evidence that it is Wikipedia alone that has "stopped the presses" for Britannica. There are literally billions of other sites on the internet providing information.
  4. Comparing the number of visits to libraries and to Wikipedia is not a valid comparison. When I go to the library, I skim through many different books and interact with their online database for several minutes, learning a great deal from that interaction alone. I usually check out several books and read them for literally hours and hours, obtaining deep knowledge about the subject I am studying, and this is all resulting from just one visit to the library. A visit to Wikipedia, on the other hand, is probably tracked as simply a user visiting a page, which could last literally 3 seconds. This is a very poor comparison that does not measure the right thing (time spent on learning or amount of knowledge gained).
  5. On this graphic, there are no references. Everything as facts but do not tell where you get the facts. This is a big problem- if I am going to put stock into some of the stats and research results that you cite, I really need to be able to review the studies and find out what they actually mean. If a site visit to Wikipedia is tracked as a click on a page, that is not very robust tracking. Every stat and every piece of research has more to it than just the numbers, and not being able to check the references and verify what actually happened in the study is a big problem.
I think my reactions above reveal my worry that people think that they can get all the information they need from Wikipedia and from a quick internet search. This is absolutely not true. I personally use Wikipedia to get a basic introduction to a topic, but to really get meaningful content, I find that I must locate and study resources that are more robust, more credible, and that provide much deeper knowledge than a simple Wikipedia page. Without such things as books and libraries, scholarly journals and professional associations, we would live in a world of surface-level knowledge and surface-level thinkers. Wikipedia is useful for some basic knowledge-gathering, but to gain meaningful knowledge the individual must be willing to (1) not accept the article as absolute truth, (2) check the facts in the article for accuracy, (3) research more credible, robust sources for deeper knowledge.

Wikipedia is certainly a meaningful phenomenon, but it needs to be put in its place.


robmba said...

Great discussion topic here, Joel. I tend to think that if done right, Wikipedia can encourage critical thinking, fact checking, going deeper, looking at multiple perspectives, and drawing conclusions. Your experience of inaccuracies that you try to fix, only to have them rejected is a common one. The solution to that is to jump into the Talk page and negotiate the changes you're trying to make with the phantom deleter. Engaging in that discussion and dealing with another person's point of view is part of what makes drive-by defacing of articles less likely to stick. Of course, there are always those people who adopt a particular article that they have a strong opinion about and watch it like a hawk with no interest in coming to a consensus. Still, understanding how to read the talk and history pages will help ensure that the reader doesn't just believe whatever the last editor changed the article to. I wish that rather than ban student Wikipedia use (I know that's far from what you'd ever advocate), we would require them to make more comprehensive use of Wikipedia. By having them write and edit Wikipedia articles, students will learn how the sausage is made and better understand its limitations, in addition to learning at a deeper level the content related to the article they write. When it all comes down to it, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and should be treated as such, like you said, a jumping off point to learn about an unfamiliar topic. If people really understood what it was good for and how it was created, no student would be tempted to cite Wikipedia itself, because they would understand how to use the basics it presents to get familiar with the topic and find citable sources. If we don't teach them to write articles and edit them at a contributor level, however, I don't know how we can expect them to understand how to use it properly at a consumer level.

joel gardner said...

I particularly liked this comment from RobMBA: "If people really understood what it was good for and how it was created, no student would be tempted to cite Wikipedia itself, because they would understand how to use the basics it presents to get familiar with the topic and find citable sources."
When used correctly, a resource like Wikipedia can be very useful, but when taken as truth without any critical analysis is the real problem.
The ability to think critically is absolutely critical to the success of an individual and therefore an organization, and the blind acceptance of web-based (or ANY) content is really a reflection of a lack of critical thinking, in my opinion.