Just Say No to Wikipedia

A middle school librarian in New Jersey has gotten some media attention for her anti-Wikipedia campaign:

Linda O’Connor regards Wikipedia the same way former first lady Nancy Reagan campaigned against drugs. . . . She put up a sign saying "Just Say No to Wikipedia" over the computers in the school library. . . . Wikipedia is blocked on all computers in the Warren Hills Regional School District.

I’m highly skeptical.

If the district is going to take a principled stand against Wikipedia because some information is biased or incorrect, is it also taking out all of the encyclopedias (which research has shown, on average, to be as inaccurate as Wikipedia)? Is it removing all of the news magazines and newspapers? The article makes a big deal about how school librarians preview materials before they’re placed on the shelves, but I can guarantee you that librarians and media specialists do not have time to screen every word of every incoming publication. They miss errors and biases just like the Wikipedia community does. Also, it’s ludicrous to pretend that the school library vetting process is free of bias. Oh, and I challenge you to find a school library that doesn’t have old, outdated (and thus inaccurate) non-fiction and/or reference materials on its shelves.

This is all of a bunch of hooey. This shouldn’t have even been a story. When is the Associated Press going to run this story?

Schools teach kids how to wisely and appropriately navigate 21st century information channels

Or this one?

New Jersey school district blocks kids from using one of the most important and powerful information resources in existence because of mistaken beliefs about inaccuracy and bias

Or maybe this one?

Wikipedia is an amazing contribution to the body of human knowledge. New Jersey school district says ‘No thanks.’

Or is it asking too much of the newspaper press to avoid bias by showing the other side of this issue?

25 Responses to “Just Say No to Wikipedia”

  1. Bias is in our nature. When you think about it everything we say and do is bias in some way. Researchers etc have to make particular note NOT to be biased in there quest for understanding.

    A non-biased view of the world through any and very media, including your’s and my blogs. That’s the nature of the current age. As soon as you look through someone elses lense you come across ‘thier version of reality’. Even when you look through your own; your views are biased based on your upbringing, background and experience. The enlightenment that comes through this digital media is that EVERYONE’S biased view is represented and through that amalgamation of viewpoints we reach a point called ‘the balanced view’ or at least I like to think so, but then I’m biased.

  2. Actually blocking Wikipedia, as opposed to simply discouraging its use by posting a sign, sends an incredibly bad message to teachers, students, and the community at large.

    Supposedly, we use electronic filters to keep out materials that are “harmful to children”. Now we are placing a flawed but extremely useful web resource in that same category. What does that say about how educators approach both new technologies and the distribution of information?

    Nothing good, I would venture.

  3. http://www.nature.com/nature/britannica/index.html

    Wikipedia is an excellent starting point with many links embedded to more “formal” articles. What’s next, ban Google searching?

    Grrrr.

  4. I’m not sure it’s Wikepedia itself that this librarian is campaigning against. Knowing kids the way I do it seems that they stop at Wikepedia and don’t do any more research at all. They take it to be the know all, end all of online research. That would be my reason for banning its use too.

  5. John, thanks for the comment. I appreciate hearing from folks that disagree with me. I’m struggling, however, with your comment because I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t just work on teaching students not to do what you describe. Let’s say that you did ban Wikipedia like this district did. That still doesn’t really solve your issue, does it (any more than it would to ban encyclopedias or news web sites or … )?

  6. They MAY be fighting against those kids who stop at wikipedia, but I doubt it. Still, let’s say that’s the issue. Do they also block conservapedia? Do they then block ALL wikis?

    Just today I sent out a tip on a wikipedia page that is an EXCELLENT resource. http://tipline.blogspot.com/2007/11/tips-list-of-historical-anniversaries.html What a shame to block the good parts of wikipedia just because you’re tired of fighting the fight to have the kids research other places.

  7. This librarian needs to realize that we can restrict the sources students use for a particular assignment but the minute they leave the classroom, they will “Google it”. As an educator (in Mathematics and Computer Science), I believe it is fine for students to use Wikipedia (and yes, even Google) as a starting point for research (both academic and recreational) but I also stress that it is important to to evaulate what they find and to use that information ethically.

    I am suprised that this librarian does not adhere to the ACRL standards of Information Literacy, which are critical to all disciplines and supports censorship.

  8. Wait, not everything on the Internet is true?

    Yeah, I’m sure that none of the students in that district knew that already. You could substitute book, encyclopedia, magazine, TV, or any kind of publication for the word “Internet” above. At least she must be a very good public speaker (or very well connected in her district) to talk them into blocking Wikipedia for everyone.

  9. I liked the approach the librarian at my school has about Wikipedia. She didn’t tell my students not to use Wikipedia, she encouraged them to also use the various data bases that are on line and and the books that are available in the library. She also talked about the possibility of inaccuracies and biases in all resource materials and that it’s important to consider the source. One of her examples that I remember was an article about drugs which was sponsored by a drug company. I think her approach is a more useful one because it encourages students to think critically about everything they read.

  10. Scott,

    Kids love popular stuff, especially on the Internet and most at the present time will go immediately to Wikipedia when someone asks them to “look up something”. I think I’d have to change my wording above from “banning” to discouraging its use or, as you say, use it as one of many sources.

    My point was that I understand the librarian’s idea of not using it. Perhaps banning is a bit strong. It’s just that I know kids and unless someone stands and watches, they’ll use what’s on Wikipedia as the gospel. Certainly any teacher worth their salt would encourage the use of online encyclopedias as well as other online sources.

    Solve the issue? It’s impossible to solve this issue without maturity in students. Off the topic a bit but not completely. Students today seem to be interested in what do I need to do to get by, not what can I learn or how do I best educate myself. That’s the nature of the beast in many cases and it continues throughout our educational system. I see from elementary schools, my daughter, a college teacher, sees it in young and mid age adults too. Thus they’ll rely on unproven, untested information at the drop of a hat. How do they say it now? “Git er done!” As quickly as possible and with the least amount of pain on their part.

  11. I recently attended a workshop “What’s Wrong with Wikipedia?” at our state library convention. The presenter was from a university; colleges are noting that many students think google and wikipedia are the answer to everything. He included some good uses of wikipedia as a source (for instance, look up your hometown and compare the entry to those in Britannica and other sources), some wikipedia hoaxes, and some downright lies. I share with my students that I might use Wikipedia as a pop culture reference (where I find it more accurate than blogs), but not to use it as a research source for a formal assignment. We have many, many databases available.

    He also shared with us that one of the founders of wikipedia has started http://www.citizendium.org, trying to avoid some of the problems of wikipedia.

    As for that nature comparison study, it itself had some flaws. Here’s a totally biased page, of course, from Britannica, but they have some valid points. I read similar info from a more neutral source, but can’t find that at the moment. Of course, the media jumped all over the original report, but not the corrections.
    http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf

  12. Banning a site that may contain inaccuracies is also to say that anything the district permits is infallible, and that students needn’t apply critical thinking skills to whatever media the school allows.

    Can you imagine that…”Hey kids, no need to think anymore! It’s all right here, don’t strain your brain!”

    Of course banning Wikipedia sends the wrong message! I agree with J.D. Williams about the function of a media specialist (librarian) as a teacher of critical thinking and research skills, rather than as a gatekeeper of “fact.”

    Good post.

  13. I agree with Ricky’s comment that Wikipedia is a good starting point for research. I don’t feel a need to discourage students from using Wikipedia, instead I encourage them to scroll down to the notes and external links section. I often find that these links are more relevant to student research than a key word search in google. Rather then banning the site, we should be teaching students the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate a site and determine bias.

  14. Teacher Magazine has extended the conversation:

    http://tinyurl.com/2vkycj

  15. Once again, an extreme response has been used in light of teaching and learning. Blocking and refusing doesn’t work. Access is still there (at home) and teachers believe they no longer have to have this conversation with kids (thanks to the ban).

    How can this be a good idea?

    The comments on this post which semi-agree with the ban, do so on the basis of disliking the “coolness” of Wikipedia, or not being certain of the accuracy. Yet they continue to contend that the books and databses vetted by their librarians are true and correct. Does this mean that the librarians KNOW everything? That they have fact-checked ahead of time for me?

    Jim mentioned “have they also blocked conservapedia”? It’s an extreme example, but it speaks to the point that if a librarian gets to decide what to block, then do their own biases (we all have them) also reflect this “blocking” decision-making?

    Does a creationist librarian block all online discussion of evolution? In his/her eyes this would be “inaccurate” information? Does a staunch scientist block all information on Intelligent Design?

    Once again, I am shocked at the extreme response of educators. Are we not intelligent as well? Are we not able to see that TEACHING our students is in fact the only way to ensure that they learn?

    Maybe that’s not fair…they’ll learn without us, but they won’t learn what we need them to learn. And they won’t learn the skills they need to learn.

    But apparently, with decisions like this, that isn’t our responsibility. (sarcasm font, where are you when I need you?)

    It is more than our responsibility…it’s our obligation. And Ms O’Connor’s decision (with support of her admin, I imagine), teaches nothing. It doesn’t teach good research…it teaches censorship.

  16. Always ask, “who benefits from this?” In the case of Libraries or Media Centers and those who run them, is it possible that they sense losing their control on access to knowledge, or their self-appointed role of filtering it according to their own proclivities and peculiarities? Librarian types think in highly rigid, structured, and organized ways…they’re very orderly people, to a fault even. But in this case, orderliness should serve access, not be an obstacle to it. Wikipedia is just fine, thank you. And so is Connexions from Rice University. Check it out at cnx.org. Happy 30th.

  17. We did not ban wikipedia but there was skepticism and a bit of bias, I admit.

    Then I saw this video by commoncraft (a site I trust very much for sharing correct information) and because of this video —

    I (and many on staff) are more open to its possibility.

    http://www.commoncraft.com/wikipedia-video

  18. part of a kids education should be to learn what a is credible source regardless of the media in which it is presented. far too often our children are stuffed full of information instead of taught critical thinking skills. even a 5 year old has the ability to think critically.

  19. Say No to Wikipedia
    i dont think that its bias anything writen is in the perspective of that person who wrote it.Im sure you should use it as a prim source of information on a paper fpr school.wikipedia had to become popular from somebody its thefirst site that pops up most of the time.Me personaly i wont use it for a history paper but ill use it for a quick definiton.So just for quick usage only.

  20. Wikipedia isn’t an internet source that no teacher would accept from a student. In a school or other educational facility wikipedia has no value. Wikipedia may never be an accepted source, but it still has valuable information. Wikipedia allows people to post what they know or believe. Wikipedia should be thought of as less of an internet source and more of a blog. Wikipedia has value because it proves itself to be useful. If anyone doesn’t want to use wikipedia don’t use it, if you want to use wikipedia then use it.

    • @kristal and @William Douglas: Well, obviously tens of millions of people – including students and educators – are using Wikipedia to great effect. It should be treated the same as any other encyclopedia. At its heart it’s as accurate as any and all other encyclopedias, with the additional bonus of being many, many times larger and much more timely. Plus it has transparency and review mechanisms that no other encyclopedia has in order to ensure accuracy and lack of bias. Blanket dismissal of Wikipedia’s utility gets us nowhere and ignores reality. If you have concerns about the accuracy of particular entries on Wikipedia, I encourage you to create an account, fix the error(s), and contribute to our global information commons!

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