Wikipedia is a great resource for students and a massive boon to enabling education for all. Composed entirely of willing volunteers passionate about open-access knowledge, Wikipedia is one of the greatest examples of large-scale human coordination.
Yet many teachers believe Wikipedia is unreliable because of a few unfounded assumptions. The notion is that since technically anyone can edit Wikipedia, this disorder will cause the average article to be inaccurate. However, this is simply not the case. Wikipedia has several rules in place to maintain quality: only Wikipedians with a certain number of edits can vote for the community moderators, and a log is kept of all edits, so that previous versions of articles can be restored if required.
Moreover, using a live feed, editors can monitor changes in realtime to quickly respond to instances of vandalism such as removal of large paragraphs of info by politically-motivated groups. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a visualization of changes to several Wikipedia articles over time to test how responsive the community was to article repair. In the graph, instances of vandalism were barely-visible specks, a testament to the rapidness of WIkipedia’s damage control.
Admittedly, there is some variability in clarity, topics covered, and overall quality of articles. Wikipedia articles tend to be very comprehensive, sometimes sacrificing approachability. However, it’s important it should be kept in mind that Wikipedia aims to be an online encyclopaedia. It’s meant to be comprehensive, be that to its credit or discredit. Different studies draw different conclusions on how Wikipedia fares in comparison to traditional encyclopedias, most famously Encyclopaedia Britannica. One study assessing historical articles on Wikipedia on the criteria of depth, accuracy, and detail found that of their sample, Wikipedia was 80% accurate while Britannica was up to 16% higher. Another study comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica and a psychiatry textbook found that it was at least as good as its print counterparts in terms of accuracy, breadth, referencing, and relevance, with the only exception being readability.
While Wikipedia is quite reliable for scientific topics, articles regarding political events or figures are often laced with the authors’ biases since such issues have no objective consensus. However, even in this respect Wikipedia isn’t very different from its paper equivalents: after all, history textbooks are no strangers to propaganda. In fact, Wikipedia might very well be better in this regard as the sheer number of contributors reduces individual bias.
The stigma surrounding Wikipedia, especially within pedagogical circles, isn’t fair. Certainly, in today’s climate of fake news, teachers should encourage students to treat all sources, including those online, with caution. But this problem is not exclusive to Wikipedia—and its open-source nature does not make it more susceptible. Instead of targeting Wikipedia, educators should instead support initiatives to foster critical thinking in their students. These could include requiring students to come up with more than one source for all of their citations. Even if students only follow these criteria for their marked assignments, it will nonetheless reinforce the importance of critical thinking.
In fact, it’s this open nature which enables it to simultaneously represent a host of views. The solution is not to shun Wikipedia—it is to encourage critical thinking in students.
Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer for Wikipedia.