I knew a jerk once– if someone acts like this it’s fair to call him a jerk– who was so incensed about his students (possible) use of Wikipedia that he proposed a pedagogical exercise to prove how awful it was. He would purposely plant false information on the online encyclopedia and then ask his students a question in class that they would need to do research to answer. They’d go home, or to the library, presumably, punch in their question to Google, and get the planted false answer from Wikipedia. The next day in class, the professor could laugh knowingly and make an important point: Wikipedia is worthless.
This jerk– he’s still a professor as well a jerk– thought this little game was both beneficial to his students and a real hoot. It didn’t work only because when he shared his clever little game with his colleagues via our department listserv a quick-witted professor jumped over to Wikipedia and corrected the misinformation. Mr. Jerk quickly realized he’d been beaten and dropped his plans. I was more than a little surprised, though, that there was very little discussion of the ethics of his behavior which seemed to me to reflect a profoundly corrupt notion of both pedagogy and of the aims and goals of Wikipedia.
This happened nearly a decade ago but it came to mind as I was reading, “Wikipedia Goes to College,” in “Fast Company.” The author, Neal Ungerleider, isn’t exactly hostile to Wikipedia, although his sense of the company’s history seems oddly attenuated, but his language suggests an equally profound misunderstanding of the institution. Wikipedia, Ungerleider says, is launching a new program that is designed to “crack the market” by reinforcing its academic reputation and helping it develop more non-English articles. Does Wikipedia “crack markets” in the same fashion as, say, Apple or Sony?
I don’t meant to suggest that Wikipedia is an ideal organization or that the online encyclopedia has solved all of its problems. I do think it’s fair to say, though, that the reports of Wikidepian inaccuracy are often exaggerated. I don’t use Wikipedia in formal research assignments, simply because I want students to become familiar with peer-reviewed journals. Wikipedia isn’t trying to “crack the market” via its ongoing search for a system of checks and balances. The jerk would disagree, and it sounds unsexy and unfashionable, but Wikipedia is trying to expand the reach and availability of human knowledge.