Once a year in elementary school, I remember having a reference unit where we learned how to look up information. The difference between an almanac and an encyclopedia was very interesting and relevant back then. It became decidedly less interesting and relevant once Wikipedia came around.
Much to the chagrin of educators, Wikipedia made many reference books obsolete. Students could find anything they needed to know about a given topic with a single search. But teachers were wary — perhaps with good reason. Anyone could claim to be an expert on Wikipedia, writing and editing articles, seemingly with free reign. But as the years passed and Wikipedia matured, that fear became unfounded. Wikipedia’s administrators provided close oversight of content, and articles became as reliable as any textbook. But still, the question remained: should students be allowed to use Wikipedia?
Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, argues yes, usually. It depends on the assignment. For assignments where students have to look up factoids, it is most efficient. For an exam or a longer assignment, such as an essay, it provides important background information. In such cases, it should never be a student’s only source, but it is a foundation on which to build a deeper understanding of the material.
From Wikipedia, a student can go on to other sources to read arguments and criticism. My favorite part about
Wikipedia was always the citation section, because it allowed me to read directly from the source, bypassing the dreaded Wikipedia altogether. But I might never have found those sources without it.