Education’s ‘dirty secret’: Wikipedia in the classroom

Wikipedia is still not referred to as a reliable source for use in the classroom by many college and university professors – even as professionals in other fields, like medicine, are learning to trust the online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia has about the same number of errors as Encyclopedia Britannica, according to research.

An estimated 70 percent of physicians admit to using Wikipedia for clinical decisions, according to the International Journal of Medical Informatics. Some estimates place that figure even higher, at 90 percent.

But in a recent webcast sponsored by plagiarism-prevention service Turnitin, an informal poll of the participants revealed that half of those instructors say they do not allow students to cite or even use Wikipedia in their courses.

Jake Orlowitz, a Wikimedia Foundation grantee and Wikipedia administrator, said he thinks more educators use the site than they often admit, due to an academic stigma the site has carried for more than a decade.

“What I’ve seen increasingly with professors, it’s not that they found so many errors in the articles, but that there is a certain amount of shame and denial that comes with using the site,” Orlowitz said. “It’s almost like a dirty secret. The hardest people to convince have been educators. And with great reason.”

While the main “pillars” of Wikipedia originally focused on neutrality, in recent years the site has focused more on accuracy.

Now the free encyclopedia, which can famously be edited by anybody in the world, encourages college instructors to use the site not only as a resource but as a course assignment.

The existing flaws, errors, and controversial nature of the site could even serve as lessons of their own, Orlowitz said.

“I want to make the case that regardless of what you think of Wikipedia as an academic recourse, there’s great pedagogical benefit to including it in your classroom,” he said.

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