Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wikipedia: How to Teach It and What It Can Teach You

I love referencing Wikipedia. Whenever I have a random trivia question, it's the first place I check. It may not be accurate all the time, but for what I use it for, it's accurate enough. And I love editing Wikipedia. Economic topics are far too rare (though becoming more common) and it's fun adding new articles and contributing (or cleaning up) old ones.

For the October 27, 2006 issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education noted many scholars in academia don't feel this way. Wikipedia isn't something to be edited or referenced, it's something students should be warned about. There is logic to this reasoning: an expert has as much authority as a schoolboy, a stark contrast from a classroom or journal. At the same time, that can be good because experts aren't always the clearest, most concise people. I've had many knowledgable professors that couldn't pass on that information to the class.

Scholars argue that Wikipedia lacks control but I see that as a good thing. At worst, it is an option to be ignored. Professors who are frightened of undoing damage caused by fallacies of wikiality should remember that problem has always existed. Most economic professors start each semester not only assuming their students know nothing but that they are also certain of blantantly false things.

But at best, Wikipedia is a tool for professors to teach their students and the public at large. My advice to academics (and the world at large) is to...

-Remember the best way to understand something is to try to explain it to others. Encourage students to edit Wikipedia and they will better understand the material.

-Edit Wikipedia yourself; you'll become that much better at lecturing and your students will thank you for it (and it'll make it easier to see how they edit).

-Talk to others. You'll also have to encounter people that disagree with you and will be forced to talk to them on their level. Another good teaching skill (I think economists could benefit a lot from this; we bemoan the fact that the public doesn't listen to us though at the same time we have a hard time talking to the public.)

-Recall how academic papers work: cite sources and peer review. These things are not requirements on Wikipedia but they are strongly encouraged; pointing out wrongs in the talk page and adding sources will improve the quality of articles that is unlikely to be undone.

-Understand that in practice, it is not as chaotic as you might think. The Wiki cultural is certainly more ungoverned compared to ivied halls but even in this free-for-all, academic credentials hold more authority (call it social capital) than no credentials. For the most part, you will be welcomed and you will be respected, so long as you do the same.

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