Not too long ago, the golden rules for high school and college students turning to the Web as a research tool were simple: treat digital content that’s never been in print with suspicion. Be careful what you Google. And thou shalt not touch Wikipedia.
But the Web has grown up a bit in the past few years, and the presence of digital research journals, fact-finding social media tools, textbook exchanges, and e-readers have made it a much more complicated landscape for anyone who encounters the education world’s slow march beyond the traditional textbook. When things have shaken out, it may be a world where free-for-all online information hubs are accepted–or, if proponents of “collaborative knowledge” have their way, even embraced.
“We have 16 million articles,” said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. “It’s impossible to say that they’re all going to be great and you’re not going to find any vandalism. So a healthy dose of media literacy helps any student looking at that information.”
In a 2005 study, scientific journal Nature found, based on a survey of articles pertaining to various disciplines, that Wikipedia was on a par with Encyclopedia Britannica when it came to the accuracy of information within. It was a win for supporters of the idealistic concept of collaborative knowledge. And some academics say that it’s now sufficiently stable and commonplace that they’re all right with students using it for basic knowledge–just not citing it.