These kids and Wikipedia: They’re out of control!

by Mr. Sheehy

Concerned Teacher: Kids these days know nothing!

O’Clerk: Well, I wouldn’t say that. They surely know many things you don’t know–but if you’re trying to say they don’t know many things you used to know, then I suppose you’re right. What gets you fuming today?

Concerned Teacher: They think knowledge begins and ends at Wikipedia. Don’t they know how to research? I bet most of them wouldn’t even know how to find something in an encyclopedia.

O’Clerk: Okay, I see your concern, but I think you’re wrong. I don’t think students care about Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: Sure they do. Why, just ask them to look something up and see what happens. Lord forbid they go look in a book.

O’Clerk: Alright, alright. Let’s start with your Wikipedia concern before we thrash them for not reading on paper. I would gamble that maybe as many as three-quarters of your students wouldn’t even spell Wikipedia correctly if you gave them a quiz.

Concerned Teacher: Well that’s no surprise, kids can’t spell either! Don’t even get me going about the ways spell check has destroyed our-

O’Clerk: Right. I think I’ll cut you off so as not to get you going about spelling. Instead, I’ll point out that students’ not being able to spell Wikipedia proves an important point: they’ve never typed “wikipedia” into the address bar of their browsers. They don’t actually care about Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: But that’s the only place they ever go, so they’re getting there somehow and that’s the real issue here.

O’Clerk: Sort of. You went on that vacation recently to Denver, right?

Concerned Teacher: Yeah, it was my anniversary and we spent the long weekend there. Hadn’t been to Denver in years. It was great.

O’Clerk: So how did you know what to do when you were there? Do you have relatives in Denver?

Concerned Teacher: Not anymore-I just did some looking for restaurants, made a list, and then my wife and I picked according to what sounded good on a particular night.

O’Clerk: How did you make that list?

Concerned Teacher: Googled it, of course–is there a better way to find information about dining?

O’Clerk: No, I don’t think so–not for travelers, anyway. When you got that Google results page, did you scroll to the bottom and dig through the pages upon pages of links?

Concerned Teacher: Are you nuts? I found a good one a couple links down and had no reason to click through that mess. That thing spits out about a half a million hits for any inquiry.

O’Clerk: I agree with you whole-heartedly, but I’ve got bad news for you. You’re no different than your students.

Concerned Teacher: How so?

O’Clerk: You ask them to research something, and they google it. One of the first hits looks promising, and they click on it. Turns out about 70% of the time we do something for school the first thing that comes up in their search query is Wikipedia (obviously my stats are on-the-spot guesses). They don’t even know what Wikipedia is, but they like that they don’t have to click through a half a million web sites to find a basic biography of Ernest Hemingway.

Concerned Teacher: But they don’t know who wrote it! Anybody can post anything on there!

O’Clerk: Tell me about it. I was doing a search for an author who had died recently (David Foster Wallace)–a number of people whose websites I read were lamenting it and I wanted to know more–and I turned to the Wikipedia article about him. It listed the date of his graduation from graduate school as two years after his birth.

Concerned Teacher: See! How can you trust that?

O’Clerk: Well, I wasn’t writing a paper about it. I was just curious, and it told me more than I’d actually wanted to know. That, and I fixed the mistake.

Concerned Teacher: What do you mean, you fixed it?

O’Clerk: Like you said, anybody can write that thing, so I wrote it. I knew that couldn’t be when he graduated, and I signed in and deleted the dates from the biography. I left a note on the edit list so other people would know why I changed it.

Concerned Teacher: Show off.

O’Clerk: Maybe. Or maybe instead of complaining about how dangerous Wikipedia is, I can help make it better.

Concerned Teacher: Like I said, showoff.

O’Clerk: Alright, but I still say students are simply being practical and behaving the same as most of us–using Google and grabbing the first good thing that pops up. If we want them to use something other than Wikipedia, we’ve got to teach them to do something different.

Concerned Teacher: How about using a book?

O’Clerk: That’s fine and dandy to say, but if that’s the sum total of our solution, have we taught them anything practical? Are they going to use books after they leave our classes? Do we use books? Why not teach them how to use the computer better–in addition to teaching them the books?

Concerned Teacher: So if Wikipedia is all that comes up with Google, how do you do it differently? Use something other than Google?

O’Clerk: I don’t know that that is practical. We all use Google for a good reason: it works. Why not teach them what Wikipedia is, so they know when using it is appropriate? After all, I claim they don’t know what it is. Beat it into their brains that they should not be citing Wikipedia, they should be writing Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: I like that.

O’Clerk: You’ll also like how they can use Wikipedia but not just use it. Did you know if you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see the outside sources contributors have used to assemble the article on Wikipedia?

Concerned Teacher: A works cited?

O’Clerk: Exactly. Teach your students to mine that list and it sends them to the best sites–sites that have been approved, so to speak, by more than a search engine.

Concerned Teacher: What if those aren’t any good?

O’Clerk: They’ll find that out fast, but usually they’re great. I use them all the time. For example, I have searched for great Hemingway information for years. I have used Nettreker, Google, whatever, and I have amassed a few good resources. But this year I simply went to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Hemingway and within minutes I’d snagged an archived Time Magazine interview with him and his official NY Times obituary. That’s good stuff.

Concerned Teacher: Sounds like how I used to do research in college–dig through the reference sections of the sources I particularly liked.

O’Clerk: Precisely. I call that good research, and it beats stopping the cart at the WIkipedia station.