I remember rolling my eyes inwardly when curmudgeonly professors at my undergraduate college forbade the use of Wikipedia outright. For me, Wikipedia was the natural starting point whenever I delved into a new subject, its crowdsourced nature rarely failing to deliver the “high points” of an unfamiliar topic.
Honestly, it still is—for a number of reasons, Wikipedia is an excellent place to gather information at the beginning of a project, and is useful for double-checking certain categories of facts or information. The problems, however, begin to creep in when Wikipedia becomes a research endpoint, rather than a place to start or a stop along a winding research path.
Why is Wikipedia so attractive to students? (And why, if we’re willing to admit it, is it so attractive to everyone else?) The most obvious answer is that Wikipedia consistently comes up first on Google searches for a variety of topics, but this accessibility, though crucial, doesn’t begin to cover its appeal. The site is consistently laid out and largely free of the flashing ads, floating banners, and “unskippable” video advertising that has become a ubiquitous and tiresome part of browsing the internet. Wikipedia’s rigidly-enforced neutral POV policy also makes reading a more fluid experience, and while cracks in this unbiased façade are sometimes evident, they are generally the exception rather than the rule.
Finally, Wikipedia is transparent. Unlike every other website out there, a click on the “edit” or “talk” buttons will give the user access to the entire history of the page, complete with discussions, arguments, and commentary. While many users of Wikipedia never use these tools, they are nonetheless an integral part of what makes the site function, and, as Eric points out, they can give students a view in on a dialogue similar to the inaccessible academic debates their professors are always talking about.
Naturally enough, there are some behaviors associated with Wikipedia that make professors want to pull out their hair in frustration. The site has become a more successful Sparknotes than Sparknotes, and is the first destination of students who have not done, or refuse to do, class readings. The neutral point of view can also be a trap for ingenuous or uncritical students, particularly since high school teaches these young learners to memorize and regurgitate information handed down from on high by omniscient textbook authors.
The Wiki-as-Sparknotes problem can be dealt with much as Jenkins deals with more serious cases of plagiarism: design classwork and home assignments that go beyond the surface readings and content rehashes that Wikipedia serves up. The neutrality trap can be mitigated by exposing students to the inner workings of Wikipedia, helping them come to terms with the bias and fallibility of the denizens who work behind the scenes on the site.
Ultimately, Wikipedia is a powerful resource that helps prevent teachers and students from reinventing the wheel every time they sit down to a new project. Its accessibility creates a higher bar for assignment quality, since students, after reading an entry on their topic, begin at a more knowledgeable starting point than they would otherwise. As teachers, we should not preach Wikipedia abstinence, but safe Wikipediaing. After all, we know they’re all going to be doing it anyway.