One of the most intriguing research reports I’ve read in the past few years is Head and Eisenberg’s “How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research”. This report summarized research about Wikipedia use and beliefs from thousands of two- and four-year college students.
I could easily blog for a month about the many interesting findings (two-year college students use it less than four-year students? Who knew?), but the one that sticks with me is their discovery that, to an overwhelming degree, college students are able to recognize Wikipedia as a starting point for research and then move onto other resources. One of my favorite quotes comes from a student who quotes his professor as saying, “Wikipedia is a great place to start, but a horrible place to end” (found in the paragraph above Footnote 14), which I’ve taken to be my own mantra about Wikipedia.
Now, I don’t doubt the research findings. After all, today’s college students probably have some memory of pre-Wikipedia memory. My graduate students certainly know not to quote Wikipedia.
But when I look back at my elementary students, and, to some degree, to their teachers, the view gets murkier. The number of projects in which teachers either recommended or permitted Wikipedia as a final source was really high. I saw it advocated in staff development as a remarkable resource for upper elementary students, despite the fact that the students themselves would admit that they didn’t understand it (many Wikipedia entries score from 7th to 12th grade in reading level — try your favorite entry here << >>). And my colleagues in middle and high school say the same: that students and, less often, teachers seem satisfied with what Wikipedia offers. Worse, I am hearing repeatedly that middle school students, in particular, are having a hard time differentiating between types of text-based Web content such as wikis, blogs, and Web sites.
So here’s the question I am left with: how do we help this generation of “Wikipedia natives” (to borrow from Prensky’s “digital natives” trope) to tomorrow’s savvy college- and career-ready graduates? How do they leap from Wikipedia as an awesome endpoint to Wikipedia as a way to gain prior knowledge before skipping the light fandango?
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