The Case for Wikipedia in the Classroom

I’ve heard this comment time and time again from professors and teachers alike: “Do NOT use Wikipedia to write *insert name of boring assignment here*”  But is this really the best approach?  I have many memories of pulling yellowing and slightly funky smelling World Book encyclopedias off the shelf of the school library, opening my college ruled notebook, and scratching away at a report.  Certainly, many of us have those same memories.  The location of the encyclopedias and other tomes on the shelves of the library lent them a kind of gravitas that appears to be lacking with modern repositories of information.  Today’s educators bemoan the inaccuracies of Wikipedia, and students’ reliance on the copy/paste function of their word processing software.
I put forth, though, that the problem isn’t Wikipedia.  While Wikipedia does have it’s share of inaccuracies (up to 60% of pages have been reported to have errors), scientific analysis has shown that Wikipedia is actually on par with the Encylopedia Brittanica for accuracy.  The question I’ll let you ponder is whether that means that Wikipedia is remarkably accurate, or that Encyclopedia Brittanica is remarkably inaccurate.
The problem is not one of accuracy.  The problem is one of judgment.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve failed to understand that students need to be taught information literacy skills.  (Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia there!) They are bombarded with information on a daily basis, but we’re not teaching them how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for any kind of research, but only if you have the skills to determine fact from fiction, and to judge the reliability of sources.  In fact, when reading research articles on topics I’m not familiar with, I often have the article open on one half of my screen, and Wikipedia open on the other, in order to help decipher unfamiliar terminology.
So what we really need to be doing is not telling students not to use Wikipedia.  Instead, we need to be teaching them about Wikipedia. What exactly is it? Who contributes to it? How do you know if the information presented is accurate? How do you use Wikipedia to lead you to relevant peer-reviewed sources? How do you synthesize information from a variety of sources to create your own original product? These are the skills and knowledge students need.  If we take the time to teach these information literacy skills, what Jenkins identifies as the new media literacy skills of judgment and networking, then we won’t need to waste our breath naming which individual sources are acceptable and which aren’t.  We’ll be able to trust students to be critical consumers of information.