Stepping Beyond Wikipedia

William Badke. Educational Leadership. Volume 66, Issue 6, March 2009.

A few months ago, I needed to send an urgent message to a young woman I barely knew. I didn’t know how to reach her. No phone number, no e-mail address, no address of any kind. So I went on Facebook, found her profile, and sent her a note. To my surprise, she answered a couple of minutes later. She was having her Facebook messages forwarded to her cell phone.

As someone who predates the Internet by many years, I’m still surprised at what we can do these days. The Internet is the biggest revolution in information since the printing press. Never before has so much information been so freely available to so many people. Not only that, but the average high schooler can run rings around the technology available—or so the mythology goes.

The New Information Reality

Wikipedia is a great example of the new information reality. Written by almost anyone, with only a cadre of volunteer watchdogs to guard its content, it has become the most frequently used encyclopedia in the world. The sheer audacity of creating an information resource of this scope, essentially controlled by no one and everyone, is mind-boggling. It runs counter to all the previous rules about quality control and gatekeeping; yet, for the most part, it’s pretty reliable. An article in Nature a few years ago (Giles, 2005) found that the reliability of Wikipedia was only slightly less than that of Britannica.

Still, there are some biased or incorrect entries. How can we determine whether the information in sources like Wikipedia is reliable and of sufficient quality for students to use? In the good old days (pre-1990), it was relatively simple. You looked at the authors’ credentials, the reputation of the book publisher, or the venue within which an article was published (scholarly journal, trade magazine, or popular publication). There were gatekeepers—serious editors who turfed out the trash and published only the worthwhile. Maybe it wasn’t actually quite as pristine as that, but both teachers and students had some concrete measures to determine what information was worth considering and what was not.

No longer. I recently did a Google search on “risk taking.” The first Web site in the result set was the product of a British professor who published most of his work in prestigious journals. The second had been created by (or for) a self-help guru with dubious credentials in mathematics and software development, who has now devoted his life to telling other people how to run theirs.

Are Students Prepared?

The uneven quality of today’s information is only the beginning of the problem. Sadly, the average high school student lacks the skill to assess online information. Study after study has shown that high school and university students are overconfident about the reliability of Web sites and lack the ability to evaluate them effectively (see Wang & Artero, 2005). In fact, our assumptions about the technological abilities of our youth in general may need a rethink. A British study released in 2008 found that “the majority of young people tend to use much simpler applications and fewer facilities than many imagine” (University College London CIBER Group, 2008, p. 18), and “the wider availability of technology and the near blanket exposure to it in recent years does not appear to have improved search performance in any significant way” (p. 22).

The wide diversity of information sources available today—compounded by the common teenage perception that all information is equally useful and usable—creates a growing problem. The typical high school student appropriates information (inefficiently) from any number of venues, including YouTube, podcasts, and so on; mashes it up; and creates projects with little regard for quality, accuracy, or the niceties of rules against plagiarism.

A 2003 Canadian survey of 3,000 incoming university freshmen found that most included inessential words in searches; used the Boolean operator “or” incorrectly; could not identify the characteristics of scholarly journals; could not distinguish between library catalogs and bibliographic databases; and had difficulty identifying journal article citations, knowing when to cite sources, and evaluating Web sites (Mittermeyer & Quirion, 2003). These recent high school graduates’ information skills left them unprepared for further academic work.

Clearly, the time to educate students about the new information reality is in elementary, middle, and high school. The ability to work with information, whether in written, audio, or video form—to define a problem, understand the nature of the information available, use the best tools well to find the information needed, and then enlist the information effectively and ethically to address the issue at hand—may well be the most important skill of the 21st century. Yet few K-12 educators keep information literacy on their radar, let alone understand how to teach it.

Can Information Literacy Be Taught?

“Students will pick up information skills on their own. Just turn them loose in a good library. They’ll figure it out. What’s so hard about learning to do research?” I hear comments like this all the time, and they dismay me. The “information literacy by osmosis” argument has been debunked by reams of research showing that even university students do not learn how to handle information on their own. They must be taught (see Gallacher, 2007). But is that even possible?

One common approach is the library orientation or, as librarians call it, the “one-shot.” This approach devotes an hour or two to familiarizing students with the essentials of how to use a library (including a few databases and maybe some cautionary instruction about the Internet). One-shots generally fail to produce much actual learning—not just because they are brief but also because they are remedial. They separate out a learning task from the main curriculum, inject that learning task into students, and then bring students back to the curriculum, supposedly inoculated from information illiteracy.

A more viable approach is to give information literacy a foundational role in our instruction. This requires us to reorient the way we teach. Most educators are well aware of the active-learning, constructivist, student-centered approach to instruction, which holds that when students discover things for themselves and attribute personal meaning to the subject matter, they learn more deeply and acquire a more permanent knowledge base. Information literacy instruction has a natural home in active learning.

Combining Information Literacy and History

Let’s consider an average high school course covering the history of the modern world. You reach the early 20th century and decide to have your students work in groups to explore the causes of World War I. Here’s how the process might look if, instead of simply turning students loose, you integrated information literacy into instruction.

Credibility Trustworthy source, author’s credentials, evidence of quality control, known or respected authority, organizational support. Goal: an authoritative source, a source that supplies some good evidence that allows you to trust it. Accuracy Up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, comprehensive; audience and purpose reflect intentions of completeness and accuracy. Goal: a source that is correct today (not yesterday), a source that gives the whole truth. Reasonableness Fair, balanced, objective, reasoned, no conflict of interest, absence of fallacies or slanted tone. Goal: a source that engages the subject thoughtfully and reasonably, concerned with the truth. Support Listed sources, contact information, available corroboration, claims supported, documentation supplied. Goal: a source that provides convincing evidence for the claims made, a source you can triangulate (find at least two other sources that support it).

Source: From “Evaluating Internet research sources,” by Robert Harris, 2007, Virtual Salt. Available: www.virtualsalt.com/evalu8it.htm. Copyright 2007 by Robert Harris. Used with permission.

Help Students Define the Problem

Have your students do initial research and then identify one essential question to answer. In this case, the question might be, Of all possible causes of World War I, which was the most significant? Was the murder of the Archduke really as important a cause of World War I as many people believe? or How could World War I have been avoided?

Emphasize that this project requires students not just to summarize information, but to analyze it: to sift through events and possible causes to determine the most significant one. Students should think of information as a tool to solve a problem rather than as the goal of research. It’s not enough to find a couple of encyclopedia articles on the causes of World War I and summarize or synthesize the information without adding any real thought of their own.

Familiarize Students with the Available Information Sources

Most students will want to turn first to Google or Wikipedia. If so, they need to understand that they may encounter inadequate or biased material. They should consider alternatives, including the library catalog, journal databases, and academically credible Web sites.

Using a library catalog (ideally in digital form), they should look for books dealing with World War I, any of which will likely cover causes of the war. The library catalog can also direct them to reference sources—for example, a dictionary of modern world history—where they can find concise material on their topic.

Broad-based article databases such as EBSCO’s Academic Search, Gale’s Info-Trac, or the Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org) enable students to capture credible journal articles, many of which are available in full electronic text within the database. When students are used to consulting only Web sites, it’s worth emphasizing that a peer-reviewed journal article can be useful in confirming the truth of what the Web sites say.

To pull up credible Web sites, have your students go to Wikipedia (“Origins of World War I”) and scroll to the bottom of the article, where they will find a bibliography and some Web site links (including one to a fascinating simulation game on the causes of the war: www.activehistoryco.uk/WW1%5FCAUSES/index.htm). The reference section of a Wikipedia article is often a good source to discover the more academically sound resources, many of which have been published by more traditional or peer-reviewed methods.

Teach Students to Use These Resources

Most students lack expertise even with Google, let alone with more sophisticated databases. Teach students how to use these tools to their advantage (see Badke, 2008), showing them the value of ensuring that their Web site results include sources that have been peer reviewed.

For Google searches, suggest that students try the advanced features, such as phrase searching, searching with synonyms, or searching only within Web site titles to get more precise results.

If your library lacks journal databases, insist that all your students get borrowers’ cards for the local public library, which generally has access to a database or two. Teach them Boolean logic with keyword searching so that they can formulate searches that get them just the information they need. For example, in a journal database, they might use the following search: (World War One or WWI or First World War) and (cause or origin).

For the library catalog, get students started with a keyword search for books (World War One, First World War, and so on). Then have them open the title link of one of the relevant books in the results to get a fuller description. There they’ll find a further link to a subject heading (World War, 1914-1918). Clicking on this link will give them access to more books on the same topic, regardless of what specific terminology is used in a book’s title. All library catalogs have subject heading searches, and many journal databases have a “narrow by subject” option.

Teach Students How to Evaluate Resources

Students need to learn to ask themselves questions about their sources: Who wrote this? What qualifications do they have? What biases do they have? What is the level of writing? Does it have notes or references? Is the language at a basic or an advanced level? and so on. A useful guide to evaluating resources is the CARS checklist in Figure 1 (Harris, 2007).

For example, suppose I’ve found a Web site on the origins of World War I: www.firstworldwar.com. To evaluate it using the CARS checklist, I first look at credibility. What is www.firstworldwar.com, and who is behind it? I find a linked name, Michael Duffy, at the bottom of the page and click on it. This takes me to an “About This Web Site” page, where I find a recommendation that the material not be used for academic research because it has not been peer reviewed. Mr. Duffy does not provide his qualifications.

Then I look for accuracy. Although not updated since 2006, the site does appear to have factual information. On reasonableness, the site is even-handed, not prone to talking about conspiracies, and not taking only one side on issues. Finally, support. Although most articles on the site lack footnotes and bibliographies, there is an extensive collection of primary sources—actual documents, posters, and so on from the World War I era. The feature articles have bibliographies.

My verdict? Although not peer reviewed, this site appears to be a reasonably reliable source for information, especially for primary source material. It is therefore usable with care and discretion, but not for higher-level academic work.

Guide Students in Using Information Effectively

In addition to locating, gathering, and evaluating information, students need to learn how to stick to their goal, capture the good stuff from what they’re reading while weeding out the useless, and structure their product, whether it’s a report or a research paper.

Straying from the goal is a common problem. Many projects on the origins of World War I will devote most of their space to describing events, failing to leave enough room for analysis of the tensions behind those events, which is the goal. Students often include extraneous details that don’t contribute to the main issue.

In taking notes on the information they find in various sources, students may need to learn how to identify the main ideas and separate those out from unnecessary details. Here, group work can be used to good effect as each member presents a portion of the gathered material to the others and they decide together how it all fits.

Analyzing the data in light of the key question or goal they are working with will help students figure out how to outline their final products. Students will need to develop an outline before writing or creating their product. For example:

Was the murder of the archduke really as important a cause of World War I as many people believe?

I. Introduction—Brief explanation of pre-WWI events.
II. The argument that the murder of the archduke was the main cause.
III. Evaluation of that argument.
IV. Conclusion.

The resulting outline becomes a blueprint to guide the production of the final report, using gathered information as a tool to accomplish the research goal.

Teach Ethical Use of Resources

Plagiarism is an increasingly challenging problem for educators and students. If I can easily pull information from various Web sites with a simple copy and paste, mashing it up into a research report in which few words actually came from me, why shouldn’t I do it? Web sites are free, so they’re available for my use, right?

To counter such ideas, it’s important that we teach students directly what plagiarism is—for example, with a tool like the tutorial “Plagiarism, eh?” (www.acts.twu.ca/lbr/Plagiarism%5FShort.swf). We need to convey to students the following:

  • Easy access to something does not mean that I can claim it as my own. If I leave the impression that someone else’s words are mine, I’m telling a lie and stealing information. I’m also telling the world that the words and ideas that come out of our brains do not belong to us. If that’s true, then anyone can steal my words and ideas just like I’ve stolen theirs.
  • When I steal information produced by someone, I separate the author from what he or she has written. The authority for writing anything comes from its author. If I pass off an expert’s writing as my own, then I diminish it, because I can’t reveal who the real author is. In the process, that piece of writing loses most of its power.
  • Good research is a discussion: “Jones has argued that. … But Smith disagrees when he says. … Both Jones and Smith have missed the point, however, because …” If I interact with the writings of other authors rather than passing off those writings as my own, I have lots of opportunity to show I’m in tune with the best ideas about the topic.
  • Plagiarism is fairly easy to detect these days (for instance, through a Google search), so there’s a very good possibility of getting caught.

The Foundation of Everything

The way to create information-literate students is to make information study the foundation of all subject matter we teach.

Instead of simply telling our students the facts, or even sending them out to find the facts for themselves, we need to help them navigate the sea of information that surrounds them. This means constantly asking them such questions as, What information do you need to address that question? What’s the best way to find that information? How will you evaluate what you’ve found? How can you harness that information to provide the best answer to your question?

When students’ first step in any learning task is to think about information, their skill in acquiring and using available resources will grow. The result will be literate students who are able to handle the demands of our information-based age.