Attacking the symptoms…

In one more case of attacking the symptoms of a problem rather than the source, some academians are refusing to allow students to cite Wikipedia entries in their papers. Now understand that I am not advocating for the unconsidered citation of Wikipedia or any other encyclopaedic work. But the net result of this effort is not an improvement of a process, but rather the unstated opinion that wikipedia, or any collection of socio-collaborative knowledge, is not of value to the educational process.

From Inside Higher Ed, comes this post:

“…the history department at Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work.”

I am not trying to vilify the faculty at Middlebury, as a matter of fact I agree that making any decision or basing an assumption of fact on a single source is a dangerous idea at best. However I would opine that we should instead operate from the assumption that all of our sources should be considered suspect. Regardless of the source, in this digital age of information we should all be instilling within our learners a clear and focused approach to vetting that information. Rather than banning or explicitly ignoring social sources, we should instead be teaching our students how to verify their data. Even peer reviewed journals, the historical bastion of credulity, are not without their own margin of error(1).

I liken this process to the following analogy:

Growing up, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol. One of our primary missions was search and rescue, often relying upon ELTs (Emergency Location Transmitters, now known as EPIRBs), to locate downed aircraft. If we were to rely upon a single line of bearing, the margin of error is such that we would be unlikely to find the plane. Utilizing two lines of bearing from two different angles results in a lower margin of error, but one with a significant search grid. But using triangulation, three lines of bearing, results in a degree of accuracy which minimizes the search grid and maximizes the chance of finding the aircraft.

If we were to use this approach with our information, we would require at least three sources from differing angles (read bias, approach, study type, etc.) to corroborate the meaning we derive from our data.

Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, and by their own admission should never be used as a primary source.

Wikipedia officials agree — in part — with Middlebury’s history department. “That’s a sensible policy,” Sandra Ordonez, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail interview. “Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. Additionally, it is generally good research practice to cite an original source when writing a paper, or completing an exam. It’s usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia.”

However, the approach being taken is not addressing the cause, simply attacking the symptoms.

(1) This is not a solid conclusion but there is enough documentation to bear further review.


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