Good Digital Parenting
Blog | Sept. 15, 2014

Why Wikipedia? The Questions Adults Keep Asking

Academic Technology Specialist, Georgetown Day School

In my experience, parents keep asking the same questions year after year as their children head back to school.

 Lately, one of the more popular questions is “Why use Wikipedia?” But what parents are really asking with that question is “Should my kids use Wikipedia and is it a real reference?” For adults who grew up in the age of multiple volumes of well-documented encyclopedic references, it’s hard to wrap our minds around Wikipedia – and even harder to use it. Yet almost every time we search, the search engine puts Wikipedia entries right at the top of our results. 

Digital natives, however, consult Wikipedia all the time, and the number of users as well as the content increases month after month. These days it is used so often that we see articles like the July 2014 piece To Use or Not to Use Wikipedia in the Classroom, published at Education World featuring dos and don’ts, that teachers can share with their students. Teachers know that their students are using the Internet encyclopedia so they are incorporating Wikipedia dos and don’ts into the curriculum.

Parents need to talk about it, too.

So how can adults learn more? Wikipedia has several pages with advice for teachers and parents. Also on the website is a clear statement about citing Wikipedia and reminding learners to always use more than one source on a topic. Educause, an organization that supports education at colleges and universities, has a helpful PDF on Seven Things You Should Know About Wikipedia. The Carlton College library addresses the topic in a section of its research guide, Using Wikipedia. All of these materials are clearly written and easy to use even with school-age learners.

So just who is writing for Wikipedia? A March 2010 MSNBC article Who Writes Wikipedia, describes a research project that developed profiles of writers who contribute content, and Discovery News published a 2013 article, Who Writes Wikipedia Articles? A video, Truth in Numbers, which includes interviews with Wikipedia writers and editors, is another good source because it also includes interviews with scholars and technology gurus who represent differing points of view.

So why all the hullabaloo? We educators and parents already know the basics when it comes to research (or we should), so Wikipedia is just another source to discuss. The timeless librarians’ and teachers’ creed – never rely on only one reference and always confirm a fact – is perhaps the most important concept for a child to learn and keep in mind. So if a young learner begins research on a topic by reading Wikipedia, the next step is to look for resources that confirm the information.

Way back in 2005 the distinguished scientific journal Nature published a piece by Jim Giles about the accuracy of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. The article, Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head, compared Wikipedia articles written by experts with articles on the same topics published by Britannica. The competition used no article written by the average reader or contributor. In theory, Wikipedia won, because its articles had fewer errors, however more than a bit of controversy surrounds the Nature comparative analysis because the topics of the compared articles were selected and probably not representative of either encyclopedia. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided that scientists can check existing Wikipedia entries in their professional specialties, adding, citing, and correcting information as necessary. In a July 2009 Wired magazine article, Wikipedia Teaches NIH Scientists Wiki Culture, writer Alexis Madrigal describes how Wikipedia volunteers traveled to NIH, holding a Wikipedia Academy and training the scientists in the wiki writing process. Today, as a result of the decision, trained scientists from NIH Institutes and Centers write for the online encyclopedia. A document, NIH Guidelines for Participating in Wikipedia, helps them with their work.

Bottom line? Don’t push Wikipedia away from yourself or your child. It’s far better to learn about the reliability or unreliability of information than to ignore it. No matter how much people vilify Wikipedia, and there are still plenty of people who do, the online encyclopedia is not going to disappear and will continue to attract Internet users, so instead let’s teach students to use it well.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.