Sunday 26 May 2013

Accessing a Free Education

For this week’s blog post I am stepping outside my usual realms of thinking about fiction texts by considering young adults’ use of a particular non-fiction text which is loathed by many people, but seen as a primary source of information by many others.

In contrast to the uncertainty which often surrounds the definition and purpose of children’s literature, Cory Doctorow (who describes himself as a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger) confidently labels his latest book, Homeland, as a Young Adult novel. With his implied readership defined, the novel includes a bibliography which explains how to go about finding out information on “cool stuff” such as pay phone hacking or using the Internet anonymously. While this would be a perfect opportunity to consider the ethical implications of such an instruction, I am going to save that for another time and wander in to the realms of non-fiction.

As part of his instructions, Doctorow sends people to Wikipedia in the following manner:
Wikipedia is an amazing place to do research, but you have to know how to use it. Your teachers have probably told you that Wikipedia has no place in your education, and I’m sorry to say that I think that this is a lazy and dumb approach.
As a teacher, I know that students are often told not to use Wikipedia; indeed, I tell my students to be wary of Wikipedia when I set them a research homework. However, I also know that such exhortations are a mite hypocritical as Wikipedia can be a useful means by which to confirm details or clarify the answer to a question. But, as any savvy online researcher knows, never rely on a single source (and having half an idea of the answer to the question before asking it can often count as another source).

While I tell my students to check elsewhere when they insist on using Wikipedia, Doctorow succinctly gives “two secrets to doing research on Wikipedia”, the first of which I have – to some extent and not consistently, I will admit – mentioned as part of my instructions to students:
1. Check the sources, not the article.
In an ideal world, all the factual assertions in a Wikipedia article will have a citation to a source at the bottom of the article. Wikipedia hasn’t achieved this ideal state (yet -- that’s what all those [citation needed] marks in the articles are about) but a surprising number of the facts in a Wikipedia article will have a corresponding source at the bottom. That’s where your research should take you when you’re reading an article. Wikipedia is where your research should start, not where it should end.
This puts the onus of the research back on the student as they need to follow up on sources. However, from conversations with them, I know that if they see a referenced comment on Wikipedia they are content to accept this as verified fact without bothering to take their research further.

In an age when students have nearly immediate access to such a wealth of information, this is more of a ‘lazy and dumb approach’ than teachers disallowing the use of Wikipedia. However, if following up sources is unlikely to happen, Doctorow’s second secret – something I had not really thought about before – is even less likely to happen:
2. Check the “Talk” link.
Every Wikipedia article has a “Talk” link that goes to a page where everyone who cares about the article discusses its state. If someone has a weird idea about a subject and finds a source somewhere on the net to support it, they might just stick it into the Wikipedia article. But chances are that this will spark a heated debate on the Talk page about whether the source is “reputable” and whether its facts belong in an encyclopedia.
The problem with both of these ‘secrets’ is that they take time. While the analogue days of searching in paper encyclopaedia for information for a homework have been replaced with Google, it has made people lazier (try Googling [google effect] or reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows if you need any convincing). The time taken to find and read a paper article is not inconsiderable, but its content (usually) rewards the researcher. Relying on Google’s first search result (which is very often Wikipedia) and taking the quickest path to a completed homework with an undiscerningly quick copy and paste is – unsurprisingly – the choice that most students will make.

It is inevitable that students will continue to use the Internet to do their homework, so rather than trying to fight it by dismissing Wikipedia (which means that students end up on risibly unreliable and unreferenced sites lower down Google’s results) teachers could do much worse than embracing Doctorow’s secrets and accepting Wikipedia as a valid source. If teachers can say that they have trained their students how to explore the world beyond Wikipedia, they are providing their students with skills that will be useful beyond the classroom, whether it is researching Shakespeare, black holes or lock picking.

It is a question of making technology work for you, rather than being moulded by the technology, and as Doctorow concludes,
Armed with the original sources and the informed discussion about whether those sources are good ones, you can use Wikipedia to get an amazing education.
Teachers (and I include myself in this): stop being so hard on Wikipedia and make sure you take the time to understand its power, and to model its use and show students how to use it critically.

Students: stop being so lazy! You have access to an amazing free education that no-one in the history of mankind has had before: learn how to use it and don’t waste it.

(The whole text of Homeland can be found at, and the Bibliography start at page 277)

Originally written for the Children's Literature at Cambridge blog and first posted there earlier today.