Sunday, December 19, 2010

Can you get a degree using just Wikipedia as a text book?

My daughter has just graduated with a BA and she was telling me about one of the papers she took this year. She did especially well in the exam but confessed that the only reference material she used was Wikipedia - she didn't refer to any class notes or text books.

This left me thinking about the credibility and relevance of Wikipedia in education today. As an educator, I encourage students to have a look at what Wikipedia says about a topic, but tend not to consider it to be as "credible" as a textbook or journal article. But just think how much money students would save on textbooks etc if all they needed to pass their degree is Wikipedia!?

I am also left with this question. If all a student needs is Wikipedia to get through assessments and exams to obtain a degree, what does it say about today's education? Should lecturers totally ignore Wikipedia and similar resources, or spend time looking at how they integrate it into their information delivery? Is university education as special as we like to think it is if all a student has to do is memorise what she reads on Wikipedia to pass assessments? How outdated are text books these days?

What do you think?


DaveB said...

I think this says more about the credibility of the paper your daughter took than it does about Wikipedia today. If "the ONLY reference material she used was Wikipedia" [emph added], then the marker is no academic. Citing a single source, only citing an encyclopedia and no encouragement to read widely are all things that should be discouraged.

Imagine this discussion happening around the print-based Britannica a few decades ago. I don't see ANY difference between that and Wikipedia. And my criticism has nothing to do with the credibility of either Britannica or Wikipedia (back then Britannica was pretty credible).

As Jimbo himself insists “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

I'm comfortable with the occasional Wikipedia reference myself. But I encourage students to use it as a way to get introduced to the topic then to look broader.

But when it comes to online material (not JUST Wikipedia) its a different story. I'm quite comfortable saying that ALL of the citations in my Masters dissertation came from papers I had obtained electronically.

Leigh Blackall said...

Well, of course I agree. Wikipedia is a remarkable resource! And it angers me the clear majority of teachers and academics are ignorant of it in every way, as information, as product, as process, as communities, as opportunity. Not all are ignorant though, there's the list of Wikipedia projects in Schools and Universities, and projects like James Neill asking his students to collaborate and make their own psychology text book.

Sadly, the 1% rule applies here. The vast majority of academics and teachers will ignore such opportunities until the bitter end. Even more sad are the open education projects that pop up and dilute the realisation of the opportunities, creating literal duplicates, adding very little value to the big picture. This could be evidenced perhaps, by looking at projects like Wikieducator, that claims to have successfully drawn a large educator community into MediaWiki formats, and survey how many in that community work on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects - where the advantages to learning rather than teaching, are far more obvious.

Now your daughter has graduated the lie, how can you both reconcile with the truth? Your post is just a beginning. Out it!

M-H said...

I think that Wikipedia entries are extremely useful as an overview of s subject. It's an excellent place to start finding out about pretty much anything, and it may be enough to get you a pass in an undergraduate unit - obviously it was for your daughter. Although I wonder - did she already knew quite a bit about the subject before she started it? But it is only a start nif you want to really find out the history of scholarship about something - a properly referenced wikipedia entry will lead you to sources that can give you a much more detailed and nuanced grasp of the concept. I've used it to start the hunt for information about several concepts I want to discuss in my PhD thesis.

M-H said...

And I forgot to say: textbooks are so last century! The information in them is static, and generally they can't be publiched fast enough to keep up with pretty much anything. The DVDs put out by textbook publishers are probably more use than the textbooks themselves, as they can be more easily updated. But the nature of knowledge itself is changing so fast that even that statement may be out-of-date by nest year. :)

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you all for your comments. I have to say that hearing my daughter's experiences during her degree have been most illuminating and left me asking a lot of questions about higher education.

@DaveB I agree with you that students should be encouraged to read widely. For me, the issue is about design of assessment. If all the assessment does is test knowledge retention, then does it matter where the knowledge comes from? What I would like to see more of is assessment that tests how knowledge is applied.

@Leigh It has been very interesting for me to see higher education through my daughter's eyes - has certainly raised issues that I want to look at more closely when I come to "teach" midwifery students next year. I think you'll see a lot more posts about this in the future.

@MH My feeling is: if students are using Wikipedia, then it is our responsibility as educators to make sure the entries they are referring to are up to date and academically credible. So as Leigh says, it is our responsibility to engage with Wikipedia...a challenge I have yet to take up...