Why I’m not alarmed that school children use Wikipedia

Bill Tancer of Hitwise has a wikiphobic piece on Time.com about the level of traffic on Wikipedia that comes from school-age children.


“Search and Internet behavior data provide alarming insight into this powerful but volatile resource — alarming because one of the core groups of Wikipedia users are school children…. As students begin their online research, they could view the prevalence of Wikipedia references in Google as proof of the accuracy and reliability of the source. Given the search exposure and sheer volume of data available on the site, they might fall into the trap of relying on a single source for their education.

While I’m all for encouraging skepticism when using Wikipedia, I think it is ridiculous to suggest it is “alarming” that school children use it. Does Tancer believe school children would be better informed if Wikipedia did not exist and was not prevalent in Google results? With all its faults — and I consistently link to articles and blog posts that point those out — I think school children are better off because Wikipedia exists, for the exact reason Tancer says we should be alarmed. On most Wikipedia entries school children would use, even if some of the facts in the article may be disputed or inaccurate, the student will likely find a list of links to multiple sources of legitimate, authoritative web-based content. Those “External links” — and how actively those who have dedicated themselves to creating and crafting the entry protect the quality of those links is one of the hidden treasures of Wikipedia. The individuals who may fight with one another on the facts of an entry can find compromise in what is included among the “External links.” I would suggest that those links are better than Google algorithms when it comes to helping school children find appropriate material for a class assignment.

Here’s an example. If you do a Google search of “Martin Luther King”, the first page of Google results includes a link to a racist-group’s anti-King propaganda site that is obviously designed to trick students into believing it is a legitimate source of information about King. Yet it is filled with racist and anti-semetic material. (I won’t link to the site.)

While I’m sure the Wikipedia entry about Martin Luther King may not be perfect, I think school children are better served because it exists and outranks the racist group’s site. There are dozens of resources the Wikipedia article cites and links to, yet none of them are hate-group sites designed to trick children. If parents are going to let their kids use the Internet to do research, then I think I’d be more alarmed if Wikipedia didn’t exist.

Sidenote: Tancer’s “alarm” about students using Wikipedia seems also to suggest Wikipedia encourages kids to “fall into a trap” of relying only on Wikipedia for information. However, here is the link to the “cite this article” link on the Martin Luther King Jr. entry. Here’s is how the citation page begins:

“IMPORTANT NOTE: Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information — citing an encyclopedia as an important reference in footnotes or bibliographies may result in censure or a failing grade. Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research. As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information.”

As I say almost daily these days: Wikipedia is a gateway to facts, not a source of facts. That is not a warning, however: it’s an endorsement. Parents, teachers, reporters and pundits should print out that Wikipedia “important note” and go over it with their kids. Tell them what “tertiary” means — you can find it on Wiktionary. Then, perhaps, we could all move onto real things to be alarmed about.

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