Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wikipedia vs. Britannica

When we ask our students in first year composition to expand their information literacy - particularly in connection with an argument essay based on research and "entering the conversation" (The Burkean Parlor), the students use a research activity that asks them to start with background information.

In the past, we asked them to check Britannica, but because Britannica has (or had) no entry for "biodiesel" -- a current topic, especially at Oregon State where Dr. Jovanovic has invented a microreactor for home-made biodiesel (here) -- our class activity has instead referred students to Wikipedia.

Thanks to this morning's post on the very helpful ORblogs, a summary of latest items from blogs by Oregonians, I found a great item on Wikipedia by Geekygirl Dawn Foster on her Open Source Culture blog . Her blog post today on Wikipedia versus Britannica brings up some of the important questions. Foster quotes from the Wall Street Journal here . For example, I sent this link recently to Anne-Marie Deitering, our contact librarian for the students' research activity. We talked about the question of "socially-constructed knowledge" and how many really participate. The question could be construed as authoritarian model (Britannica)versus a more democratic model (Wikipedia).

This summer, as I previewed the assignment for the students in WR 121, one said that her other professors would not let his students use Wikipedia. I said that I did allow Wikipedia because it provided a good general background on topics and I trusted the students to have enough sense to evaluate and verify the information given. For example, suppose students are studying the Formula One car racer Michael Schumacher Part of our assignment asks students to review the "History" and "controversy / discussion" pages in a Wikipedia article. In the case of Schumacher, the History page was just updated this morning, probably with reports on rival racer Alonso's criticism of Schumacher. The Discussion page tries to address both the accuracy of the article on Schumacher as well as the opinions - e.g. whether or not he should be considered the best race car driver ever.

Students, perhaps especially engineering and science students, often want to know "the truth" - and are frustrated when there is no once-and-for-all single right answer. And Wikipedia, then, by revealing the shifting nature of "truth", can frustrate them particularly.

But, with OSU's mission being "open minds" (a liberal agenda?), involving students in the creation of knowledge via Wikipedia in this case, is essential.

More on this later.


Blogger Sara Jameson said...

Great points! I like your balanced approach to allowing students to use Wikipedia as one of their many sources. Sometimes the discussion around an article or reviewing the history page can be a great learning experience. Too many professors take an all or nothing approach to Wikipedia. Like I said, we live in a gray world where decisions are not as simple as one source or another. We need to take the best from both.

Dawn Foster (as posted by Sara Jameson)
Visit my blog at

1:05 PM  

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