Don J. Wyatt: Explains why Middlebury is stopping history students from citing Wiki as primary source





... When did the history department decide it needed to codify an official policy against citing Wikipedia?

A. We'd been deliberating on Wikipedia for almost half a year, but what really tipped the balance was the fact that we found there were multiple instances of students citing Wikipedia for the same misinformation. Wikipedia is very seductive: We all are sort of enamored of the convenience and speed of the Web. From the standpoint of access, it's a marvelous thing. But from the standpoint of maintaining quality, it's much less so.

What is the department's stance on students' using Wikipedia as an entry point or as a way of finding other, more appropriate sources for citation?

A. We're on record as actually encouraging it for that purpose. To be honest, the original impetus behind our decision arose as an outcry from professors who wanted to preclude or prohibit students from using Wikipedia altogether. I personally resisted that. ... I believe that most educational decisions should be directed toward extending access and rights rather than restricting them.

It seems as if it would be difficult to push students off the site altogether.

A. The real goal was to arrive at a policy that we could enforce. We decided that we didn't want to ban students from using a particular resource; we wanted them to be able to use it with greater discrimination and more discretion. I was also hesitant about fostering a kind of "open season" in which students were seeking to test such a ban by increasingly violating it ... and I felt no compulsion to nurture such behavior by imposing a ban that was not enforceable from the outset.

Supporters of Wikipedia -- including the site's founder, Jimmy Wales -- often say Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source, but they add that other encyclopedias should not be cited either. In your department's view, is citing Wikipedia analogous to citing Encyclopaedia Britannica?

A. I think Wikipedia is a different beast largely because it is open-edited. That's not to say that students shouldn't be exposed to inaccurate views, but they should be instructed in making proper discriminations between what is accurate and what is inaccurate. I guess this calls to mind what Plato said in The Republic when he referred to democracy as "full of variety and disorder."...


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