Teaching Zach to Think: Evaluating Online Resources – Alan November

I caught the tail end of November’s presentation after Lee Rainie’s session ended. As I entered the room, he was very excitedly demonstrating how to make your own customized Google search engine that just searches the sites you tell it to search. Sounds like a pretty nifty idea. For more on this session and the ideas it included, see Digital Deb’s post over at Plugged In.

Wikipedia Smackdown! with Alan November and Kathy Schrock

In this highly entertaining session, two big names in the world of instructional technology debated the pros and cons of Wikipedia, now known as the world’s largest encyclopedia. Kathy participated virtually via Skype, while Alan was there at the TLA conference. Kathy was at a little disadvantage, since Alan had control of the computer on which she appeared, but both presenters made some good points about the good and not so good aspects of Wikipedia. The back and forth banter was pretty rapid-fire, but here is a quasi-transcript of their ideas:

Moderator: What is your overall impression of Wikipedia?

KS says she has difficulty finding a way to validate information on Wikipedia. How do students determine if the information is correct? We can’t see the contributor’s name.

AN takes a conceptual approach. It is not an information tool, but a publishing tool/forum for children to use

KS agrees, but says they don’t sell themselves as that

AN gives an example of a Wikipedia entry for the Pitot House in New Orleans that was written by a 3rd grade class researching the landmark. Says we can use the History tab to see different iterations of the article under the name of the teacher. Changes are still being made.

KS agrees that using a wiki as a publishing tool is one of the most powerful things we can do with students

AN says we don’t want to evaluate new tools using old thinking.  Role of the teacher is to help students evaluate new information.

KS doesn’t like what Wikipedia does to help its articles come to the top of a Google results list. She says Google is a popularity search engine – they use the number of times a site is linked to to determine relevancy. In some articles on Wikipedia, authors provide links to other web sites that will provide additional information on the topic, but Wikipedia hides the links to those web sites from the Google search engine, So even though another site might be more authoritative on a particular topic, the Wikipedia article on that topic is going to rise to the top of the Google results list when a Google search is done. The other resources that authors are using, are not assigned their appropriate “popularity” because those links aren’t seen by Google. She calls this a “slimy practice” by Wikipedia.

AN counters by saying that Google also looks at title of site, URL and content too when sorting and determining relevance.  Says the knowledge of the masses has validity. He believes we all have the responsibility to correct misinformation in Wikipedia.

KS says only 17 % of the world’s population is on the Internet and that the masses aren’t correcting Wikipedia. Kids believe that using one source for research is ok.

AN says that the power of Wikipedia is when students do good research using several sources then publish or correct an article.

Moderator: How do you critically evaluate an entry?

AN says that we need to read AND write on the Internet, just as we read and write on paper.  Many articles are rejected – there is academic rigor involved. What is published gets comments from all over the world. It’s hard to evaluate something you don’t know anything about. Learn about how it works. Use RSS feature to subscribe to an article and its corrections/changes.

KS still argues that the articles should have to be signed with the author’s real name and brings up the saying “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Wikipedia’s editors have no credentials. She also mentions  GoogleKnol coming as a competitor to Wikiepdia.

Moderator: quotes The World is Flat as saying that it is too easy to slander people because there is no one accountable for the information. What keeps people from slandering others?

AN cites a study that looked at number of errors in Britannica and Wikipedia and found that the average error rate in Britannica is 3, Wikipedia is 4. He also cites as an example that the Oxford English Dictionary began asking anyone to contribute the definition of a new word in 1863. He says that we can’t just rely on scholars to provide information.

KS says that since there are no citations in many articles, that there is lots of plagiarism. Top 10 things looked up indicate that the most users are young people. We need to help students look at everything critically. She recommends using it as a source consulted, but not cited.

AN says that certain controversial topic articles cannot be edited by anyone, e.g., Hilary Clinton and the campaign – authors must have clearance. Telling students not to use Wikipedia doesn’t help them learn to deal with it.

Moderator: Does Wikipedia fill a need for pop culture information?

KS says everything can be found easily which makes it popular. It is larger than any print encyclopedia. Some articles contain opinion which can influence students not ready to determine the difference from fact and opinion.

AN references Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Wikipedia can tell you what people think about things, not necessarily what the facts are. Collaboration is expected in 21st century – a wiki is a tool for collaboration.

No solutions were found, but both sides gave the audience much to think about regarding Wikipedia and its place in the Web 2.0 world.