Thursday, February 22, 2007

Educators weighing in on Wikipedia

Educators weighing in on Wikipedia
Potential legislation, some schools' policies aim to limit Web site's application as a research tool

By Alexa Vaughn

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

As the days of expensive hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica sets transition into the age of Wikipedia, schools are determining what their relationship to the Web site should be.

Educators are currently determining whether to allow students to use Wikipedia in their research while the U.S. Senate is considering restricting interactive Web sites such as Wikipedia at all public libraries and schools.

The measure, called the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, was introduced last month by UCLA alumnus Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Though the legislation's language does not list specific Web sites to be restricted, it would put limits on commercial social networking sites and chat rooms. If the bill were to be passed, the Federal Communications Commission would have 120 days to determine which sites would be restricted.

The bill's definition of Web sites eligible for restriction includes any site that "enables communication among users," which includes Wikipedia.

Wikipedia obtains its information and edits from any user and information is posted without any formal peer review. Altogether 75,000 people across the world have contributed to more than 5.3 million articles.

According to Wikipedia's article entry on itself, the site's "philosophy is that unmoderated collaboration among well-meaning, informed editors will gradually improve the encyclopedia in its breadth, depth and accuracy, and that, given enough time, the truth will win out and even subtle errors will be caught and corrected."

But the site has repeatedly encountered controversy for the posting of faulty and copyrighted information since it opened in 2001.

As Stephen Colbert, anchor of mock news show "The Colbert Report," proved last summer when he successfully asked his viewers to add false information to an entry on elephants, the site's information may not always reflect fact.

Many educators agree, however, that Wikipedia is a valuable place to start research, but should not be treated as an authoritative source.

"As faculty, I can see Wikipedia as a starting point for gathering information, not an end point or primary source of reference," said Vivek Shetty, a UCLA Academic Senate chairman, adding that he uses the site himself.

Though many other UCLA professors do not allow Wikipedia to be cited for their classes, no university-wide policy against it is being proposed, Shetty said.

"Our goal as UCLA faculty is to help our students acquire and refine the critical-thinking filters that will allow them to distinguish between information and knowledge," Shetty said.

Aaron Gorelik, an English teaching assistant, said Wikipedia is a great research tool when used with caution.

"One can use the database for getting a large picture of a topic that one needs in passing," Gorelik said. "Or one can use the database as a point of departure, a starting point that can lead one to other reliable sources."

But administrations at other colleges and universities have taken stances restricting or banning Wikipedia from students' work.

The history department at Middlebury College in Vermont announced a policy last week forbidding students from citing Wikipedia articles in research papers, said Middlebury history Professor Neil Waters.

The policy states that "Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source."

Many of the facts within Wikipedia articles are footnoted and can be checked with a link that connects to other sources on the Internet.

Evangelina Perez, a fifth-year history and philosophy student, said instituting a policy against citing Wikipedia would be unnecessary.

"It's just assumed that you don't cite it in research," Perez said.

But Patrice Fabel, a third-year political science student, said one of her former professors allowed citations directly from Wikipedia.

"I use it more if (the subject is) something you want to get a broad idea of," Fabel said. "Sometimes I use it to reaffirm what I thought."

But regardless of educators' individual policies, Wikipedia could be restricted at all public schools and libraries considered accessible to minors if Senate Bill 49 passes.

With reports from Bruin wire services.

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