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Navigating the online information maze: should students trust Wikipedia?

Being literate used to be about knowing how to read. In the 21st century it also means knowing how to negotiate through the torrent of information coming at you from all directions. Information Fatigue…

Do we know where to find the most credible information in an age of digital literacy? Shutterstock

Being literate used to be about knowing how to read. In the 21st century it also means knowing how to negotiate through the torrent of information coming at you from all directions. Information Fatigue Syndrome, or “Infoglut” is a defining issue of modern life. For students particularly, it is getting harder to find useful, quality information.

Information literacy to digital literacy

Educators have been teaching information literacy skills to students for many decades: learning to read, how to use libraries etc. Now with the increasing amount of information on the internet, it is more important than ever for higher education to teach students to apply these metacognitive skills — searching, retrieving, authenticating, critically evaluating and attributing material — to the online environment.

Digital information literacy skills have already been recognised as essential for study and for students’ future employability.

Academia has long discouraged students from using general search engines like Google and crowd-sourced information resources like Wikipedia for their assignments. It’s no big surprise, though, that students continue to access these resources. That may not be such a bad thing.

The crowd-sourcing review practices of Wikipedia, though criticised for favouring rapid turnaround over reliability, are forcing educators to reconsider the value and credibility of digital resources, or at least to rethink their attitude towards them. As scandalous as it might sound to old-school academics, Wikipedia is arguably subject to more rigorous review practices than are many scholarly publications.

Any interested party can contribute to a Wikipedia page. This community of gatekeepers, which is not unlike a community of scholars united by a common interest, assures quality of content. The influence of a minority of rogues is unlikely to taint the overall quality for long.

Who determines the value of knowledge?

The traditional academic attitude to crowd-sourced content raises serious questions about who determines the value of knowledge. Why should a journal article reviewed by a relatively small, self-selected group of academics be regarded as more valuable than an article in Wikipedia, which has been peer-reviewed by possibly thousands of interested readers?

The value of online information will undoubtedly differ in certain disciplines. A medical student is unlikely to rely on content generated from a search engine. I, for one, certainly hope that individuals in the medical profession draw on information from scholarly publications and not the top Google entry, which could be a popular blog or tabloid newspaper.

But for highly technical, fast-moving fields, such as information technology (IT), the lag between journal article submission and publication invariably means that this information is outdated before it is released.

A student writing about emerging technologies, for example, needs access to, and institutional permission to use, information that is available via online newspapers, blogs, RSS feeds, wikis and social media sites. Digital literacy skills can help them sift the wheat from the chaff.

A threat to the gatekeepers

Unfortunately, these new forms of knowledge construction represent a potential threat to the authority of academic gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, these educators shun Wikipedia and insist on the use of peer-reviewed sources alone.

This archaic practice continues despite demands from employers for graduates who can critically judge the validity and reliability of online information.

Higher education institutions need to equip students with digital literacy skills. Otherwise, new modalities of education, such as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, are likely to become increasingly popular, threatening traditional models over time. While disciplines that rely heavily on practical instruction, such as medicine, will retain their value, highly technical and fast-moving fields such as IT may be at risk.

How then can formal institutions remain relevant in the digital age with the proliferation of MOOCs?

Keeping formal institutions relevant

Students want an easy and reliable way to quickly validate online information. Unfortunately, many are not comfortable using materials outside those that are institutionally provided. As educators, we need to find ways to teach students how to cut through the noise and find quality information.

This raises questions about what an education that incorporates the development of digital literacy skills would actually look like.

The annotated bibliography is certainly not a novel idea. For countless years it has allowed students to demonstrate how they account for the currency, relevance and authority of information. If this task has worked so successfully for printed texts, surely it can be adapted for the digital environment.

The incredibly popular image-sharing platform Pinterest may be unintentionally fostering the development of these skills. Users are seduced by the aesthetically pleasing pictorial representation of ideas. Without even realising it, they are selecting, analysing and prioritising content for their own digital collections.

Other digital curation tools also function in this way.

These are just some of the tools that could be used to explore how students determine the relevance and credibility of web-based content. However, despite Infoglut, digital curation tools remain a largely untapped resource in the higher education sector. As educators, we ignore these new tools at our peril.

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52 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Morey

    Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

    Thank you for raising this issue in a serious way. I don't have a problem with the citation of information from Wikipedia. In some areas, because it is more up-to-date, Wikipedia is clearly more accurate than scholarly journals.

    For example, the detailed results of general elections in countries around the world is certainly better reported on Wikipedia than in the general media, and in many cases Wikipedia presents information more clearly than the individual country's electoral website. It…

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    1. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      Stephen I agree entirely with you. I allowed students to use Wikipedia in the assignments I marked in the business subject of "Money and Capital markets". I found from my years of practical experience that the information on the Wikipedia site was up-to date and invariably accurate. No texts had predicted the 2008 GFC or current information and it was all there in Wikipedia instantly it occurred. I could see the content was well researched and accurate.

      Which subject can students undertake based…

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    2. Ian Austin

      Lecturer in International Business

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Hi Terry

      I did the same thing in the first 12 months of the GFC I actively used Wikipedia with my students to allow them to watch day-by-day changes to US Treasury attempts to manage the crisis. They also scoured international media sites. Wikipedia is an excellent tool for fast changing environments and analysis when supported by accredited media and public academia backing it up. Students loved the experience.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      "but there are many smaller pages on Wikipedia that have little readership and have not received the same level of review."
      Actually, most academic journals would have a smaller readership, and less rigorous review process. "Peer" is always the curtain we need to look behind.

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Terry, I don't know if this data is recent, but I remember, a study done a few years ago, found that on science topics at least, Wikipedia was more reliable than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I imagine that one more technical economics/finance topics the same situation applies.

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Ian Austin

      Wikipedia was an excellent source for synthesizing the mind-numbing complexities of what constitutes the discourse of "the GFC."

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    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      Stephen, I generally agree with you; but on some topics more than others. Wikipedia tends to be very good for Science and Economics: not so good for Political Science or History. I had found Wikipedia excellent for the type of stats that exist *somewhere* on UN/OECD/IMF sites, but where to find it? If you want to find out how Ethiopia's standard of living is going, Wikipedia is great. Or where Iran ranks in the UN HDI (inequality-adjusted), or PISA results over the past decade. But recently - during a discussion on TC - I argued directly from Wikipedia on global relative inequality of wealth. It was only a few days of toing-and-froing that I realised the Wikipedia table was based on data from over a decade ago. As my historian training has hit me over the head with 100,000 times - always, always, ALWAYS go to the direct source.
      But Wikipedia is a no-brainer as step one to the gaining the knowledge, which you VERIFY elsewhere if you are in doubt.

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  2. Nicholas Sheppard
    Nicholas Sheppard is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Computer Scientist & Teacher

    I wonder if the reliability or otherwise of Wikipedia is ultimately beside the point. I encourage my students to seek out the original source of the information that they want use. Who determined that such-and-such thing is true, and how did they establish this truth? I think Wikipedia, being a summary of information from other sources, can be a useful guide to the original sources of that information, but it doesn't by itself answer those questions.

    Regarding review, I think we also need to be asking: who performed the review? Is that person in a position to give an informed opinion? In my field, for example, one would surely prefer the opinions of computer programmers when reviewing a technical article on computer programming. That's not about excluding non-programmers from knowledge -- non-programmers are welcome to go learn programming -- it's about asking people to make informed judgements.

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  3. Marj Kibby

    Academic

    I think it is essential to have students look at the Wikipedia article Rating (a feature article is more to be trusted than a stub), History (how many people are editing, reading etc), Talk page (are there any controversies, is it part of a coordinated project) and Bibliography and then evaluate it's usefulness for the purpose.

    Every article is different.

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Marj Kibby

      Marj, the *Talk Page* on many Wikipedia pages can give you as much knowledge as a two semester university course!

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  4. Jay Wulf

    Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

    I wonder, that with rapidly increasing flow of information, we ought to come up with some kind of a rating system for veracity of information.
    As a very rough napkin sketch.

    One star - Noises issuing from the mouths of politicians.
    Two star - Commercial media
    Three stars - Clergy
    Four stars - Used car salesmen
    Five stars - Aunt Bethany and her gossip network
    Six stars - Anything Mr.Wulf posts
    Seven stars - Wikipedia articles
    Eight stars - Utterings of 'soft' scientists (economists, philosophers, politics)
    Nine stars - Utterings of 'hard' scientists (physicists, mathematicians, astronomers).
    Ten stars - scholary, peer reviewed articles
    Eleven stars (because it goes to 11) - The word of 'god'.

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    1. Sam Douglas

      PhD student (Philosophy) at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Oh come on! Can philosophers at least have 8 and a half stars :)

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    2. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to Sam Douglas

      Don't panic just yet, as your lot could soon be bumped up to a full measure of nine stars when Mr Wulf, just on a wh_im'plausible, decides to amend the listing somewhat, thus making it:

      Seven st_ars'eing about - Anything that Mr Wulf will always restrain himself from posting. :^)

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Sam Douglas

      Sam, outside of Formal Logic, I would not trust Philosophers too much.

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    4. Sam Douglas

      PhD student (Philosophy) at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Agree that it 'Philosophy' covers a very broad range of material and methods - even within academic circles and that Logic could be viewed as being at the 'harder' end of the spectrum. It would be a pretty poor philosopher that I'd trust less than an economist, though I cannot rule out such a thing happening.

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  5. Karen Garson

    Teacher-Librarian

    My sons (in secondary school) are told not to use Wikipedia as an information source. However, as a primary school Teacher-Librarian, I recommend it as a great starting point, as students can often get a grip on their topic before engaging in the "real" search. I agree that Wikipedia has become much more reliably edited over time - and of course there are references to original sources.

    I believe it is more important than ever that students learn to use the metacognitive skills mentioned - searching, retrieving, authenticating, critically evaluating and attributing material. This is in the Teacher-Librarians' manifest. We teach students to navigate through the "infoglut" to find the information relevant to their tasks. Yes - even in primary schools.

    Teacher-Librarians are a threatened species in Australian schools. Yet we are perhaps best-placed to guide students through this digital maze, while keeping focussed on the purpose of the search.

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Karen Garson

      Karen, one of the best uni courses I ever took would not give us access to the course's online page until we had been admitted by the librarian who taught an introductory digital literacy course - five hours in total.

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    2. Peter Farrell

      teaching-principal at at a small rural school

      In reply to Karen Garson

      I like what you say about metacognitive skills.

      Wikipedia is a great starting point, and, for middle primary school kids - a great finishing point. For the senior primary kids, looking at Wikipedia first, and then going for specific on-line information wastes less time.

      BTW - just for fun we sometimes do projects where the children are told not to go on line. The kids like this because it is novel.

      PS: Our teacher-librarian comes in a small truck!

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  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Interesting!

    'I, for one, certainly hope that individuals in the medical profession draw on information from scholarly publications and not the top Google entry'

    Doesn't that mean, in fact, the author has serious doubts about people's ability to filter information? It seems she doesn't trust the Web after all.

    It also suggests it's OK to use dodgy material when the outcome is lower-stakes (like a linguistics essay, for example).

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    1. Kerry Raymond

      retired

      In reply to James Jenkin

      With any information, you need to weigh up its provenance and assess your risk in using it for a given purpose.

      If the stakes are lower, you can get away with using information that you might be less inclined to rely on for a riskier purpose. Plenty of people buy food based on TV advertisements or a tasty-looking label, but people with food allergies read the ingredient list and the nutritional information because they are at higher risk.

      When dealing with information, we often trade-off cost and convenience against quality, just as we do with many other things. Wikipedia and the WWW more generally have been game changers because there is now a convenient low-cost means to distribute quality information to billions of people, if the holders of that quality information are willing to do so. This is leading to increasing pressure that scholarly publication should be accessible to all and not hidden behind a paywall.

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    2. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Notwithstanding the fact that it's absolutely impossible to do so with any Google entry, it's always been a very good practice for those in the medical profession to draw on information from scholarly publications as it'll help them no end[orsing] to improve upon their totally-illegible scribblings.

      Many people now think that the best thing for everyone will be when all of those in the medical profession known ever-ready to jot down any information at all in the offing instead always bring themselves to just draw a blank.

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  7. Renae Barker

    Lecturer in Law at University of Western Australia

    I encourage my students to use sources like Wikipedia as a starting point - but not as the end point of their research. If a student knows little about a subject Wikipedia can give them a good overview of the topic, may give them so other sources to look at (via the bibliography) and gives them an idea of search terms they might like to use to find scholarly work on the area.

    However I don't allow them to reference Wikipedia as scholarly work - the reason - it changes all the time. one of the…

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    1. Kerry Raymond

      retired

      In reply to Renae Barker

      It is true that a Wikipedia article can change, but every single version of the article remains accessible via the history. So long as the citation contains either an access date or a direct URL to the specific version, you can see exactly what it said at that time. Here is the Wikipedia article for The Conversation as it is today:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conversation_(website)

      Here it is 1 year ago:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Conversation_(website)&oldid=547019774

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    2. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to Renae Barker

      It's not for nothing that the Royal Society has as its motto:

      "Nullius in verba"

      That which is on Wikipedia one day is not gone the next if you've saved it. It doesn't have to be on Wikipedia per se, and it doesn't even need to be written down somewhere, as long as it's indelibly imprinted on one's mind.

      I wonder if you and your friends will have to wait as long as 20/30 years for some of the Wikipedia errors to be corrected, just like those persons wrongfully convicted who waited [and still do] for their t_errors to be corrected. Perhaps this is why many prisons are still [f]rightfully called places fit for the correction of those who've gone wrong, not in the community, but in its courts.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Renae Barker

      Well an undergraduate Law student should rarely need to cite anything other than a judicial decision, or piece of legislation.

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  8. Ian Austin

    Lecturer in International Business

    The minute students become working professionals and no longer have university library access does anyone really think they predominantly use anything other than open source materials! A professional might subscribe to the AFR or a professional journal or two, but in all seriousness it would be fascinating to see research on how much/or how little Australian graduates on average utilise journals after graduation. Life long learning anyone....

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    1. Peter Farrell

      teaching-principal at at a small rural school

      In reply to Ian Austin

      Buying peer-reviewed articles can be expensive!

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  9. Bill Davis

    Swinburne University, eCommerce/ICT Tutor at Swinburne University

    I think that using Wikipedia as a source of where to find sources of information is good, but before we go too far, has anybody considered that Wikipedia's gatekeepers are overwhelmingly male. So be careful of some of these articles about women's issues as it is unlikely that somebody who has a vagina is actually a gatekeeper.

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  10. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    Thanks for the article. I have told my students that I will not accept Wikipedia as a reference in their assignments, but that they can certainly use it as an initial road map. I gave them examples of how people can change it quickly for their own purpose, but I did like the way that other people can review and edit information.

    They can go there first to get an idea of "lay of the land" but I made it clear they need to check out the references used. As it is a secondary source of info they have to verify the accuracy themselves. Sometimes I use it myself as a quick info source but would never rely solely on it.

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  11. dlavenda

    logged in via Twitter

    Amy, the main problem with students and information sources is that Google now dictates what students see - by placing Wikipedia first, followed by Ask.com and a bunch of other generic sources - students rarely drill down beyond the top 5 results. Students aren't being challenged to critically question the source of the material, so whatever floats to the top becomes truth. I see that as the main issue. Google Scholar is a good tool to go beyond the obvious sources as are a collection of specialized search engines. I think what's missing in curriculum is teaching students that they have to take everything with a grain of salt, question the sources, and dig a bit deeper to understand who stands behind the information; Wikipedia included.

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  12. Paul Burns

    logged in via Facebook

    Should students or anyone else trust Wikipedia? No.

    Should they use it? Of course. They just need to be reminded that Wikipedia, like other media, has attracted hoaxers, PR companies, those with political and other agendas, cranks and the plain misinformed.

    Checking for confirmation from other sources is important. Help with identifying what makes a good source should be taught and discussed.

    Unlike much other media, Wikipedia is not controlled by a press baron.

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  13. Ron Mackie

    Retired

    Those amongst us who have metacognitive training have no problems using Wikipaedia as a memory booster in areas of politics, history, literature etc.
    Also, where important new details do emerge from a Wiki search I always find it advisable just to double check with other sources.
    It was unfair when Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, was sneered at for quoting statistics from Wiki which were quite likely to be accurate.

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    1. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Ron Mackie

      Yes Ron, as much as I find Greg Hunt irritating, I thought the people who knocked him for his reference to Wikipedia was a bit rich. I wonder if any checked his Wikipedia reference to see if it was credible on the subject. So many people unfairly knock Wikipedia and tell me that anyone can post what the like on Wikipedia which simply is not true. In the past it was very difficult to get access on just about anything you wanted to enquire about, as you can now in moments with numerous sources.

      Another good first reference for economic details of any country is to Google up the "CIA Factbook". It opens the door for you in seconds and then you can go down the investigative path as far as you want.

      Wikipedia is a great entree!
      I have found most pollies I have spoken to about matters get their information from the H'un or the Age and that seems to be acceptable to so many.

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  14. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    "For students particularly, it is getting harder to find useful, quality information"

    Really? Does the University of Southern Queensland not run compulsory courses in library literacy for its students. (Presuming the University has a library). Most universities spend a fortune subscribing to databases of quality information - if students ignore these in doing their work they should be marked down: knowing the layout of scholarly information in your area is a vital part of a university education.

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    1. Alison Hunter

      Librarian

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Yes, Russell, USQ has a library, it has lots of databases and e-books, and more, accessible using a discovery service so that students don't have to work out which database to use. We teach, demonstrate etc information literacy principles in all sorts of ways, including generic classes, classes and sessions embedded in courses, use of online and print guides, applications and tools and individual assistance. Every university does. The real point is not so much having access to that info, but using the sifting, evaluation and judgement skills when the universe of knowledge is so more available to students now.

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  15. John Browne
    John Browne is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Surveyor

    Wikipedia really is a useful resource. Wish I'd had it when doing my HSC. My opinion is that it encourages scepticism by highlighting unfounded claims with captions such as [citation needed].
    It is also a free and ad-less resource because it is funded by donations. I give to them on a regular basis and encourage others to do the same.

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  16. Kerrin O'Rourke

    Vocational Trainer and Learning Facilitator at Workplace Training

    This is a very useful discussion. Not only universities but TAFE/VET level assessments and senior secondary assessment has to grapple with the use of Wikipedia also. A few observations. Verification of information sourced in part from Wikipedia is fine if the student/learner can find another source that supports the Wikipedia information. If assessment guidelines make this clear, is there a problem?
    The other aspect is that critical literacy is an essential foundation skill for all members…

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Kerrin O'Rourke

      One remedy to Wikipedia reliance is unseen three-hour invigilated final exams.

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  17. Katie Eberle

    Director at Department of the Environment

    I think this -- the instant nuggets of questionable and uncontextualised 'truth' at the end of a Google search--is the shallow end of the problem. Richard Foreman says:
    "I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us…

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  18. Darren Yorston

    Student @ UQ

    I actually find the direction from Universities not to utilise Wikipedia to be quite archaic and a demonstration of a lack of critical thinking skills. Like many people Universities fail to make a distinction between the information and the medium of transport. Mediums change, get over it. Ask the question, is Wikipedia the cause of the data being inaccurate? I have had Professors say to me that the only reliable source of information is a book or journal, but when I show them that I am accessing an electronic version of the same text they say that it is unreliable and cannot be used. Tell me who needs to update their thinking skills?

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Darren, those Professors might be dolts. OR, they might just be teaching you good habits of discipline. ;)

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    2. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy,

      What habit? That I should mistrust a medium and not evaluate the information critical?

      I think we have moved beyond Topsy the elephant arguments.

      I use Wikipedia but I also check the information against peer reviewed sources. I do not discount it BECAUSE its on Wikipedia.

      If people want to live in the dark ages then let them go for their life, just do it in private so the rest of use that want to adopt some reasoning skills do not get embarrassed by their archaic behaviour.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Well, Darren, perhaps you have outgrown being a "student".

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    4. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      One never ceases to be a student Andy, the day I think I know everything will be the day I know that I know nothing!

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Fair enough. Still don't be closed to what may seem crotchety, archaic, or elephantine. There's still a lot of wisdom behind a lot of those wrinkly old faces, with their dusty olde worlde PAPER books! ;)

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  19. Rory Manchee

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Recently, I was doing some online research for a blog about the Australian publishing industry - specifically, a government-funded industry research project called Ad Rem, from 2001. I contacted AusIndustry via its website, only to be told that their available archives don't go back more than 5 years. However, the e-mail response very kindly referred me to my own blog (thank goodness for Google).
    Clearly, in the space of one blog post, I have become a credible expert on this topic.

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  20. David Akenson

    logged in via Facebook

    I invite my students to use Wikipedia as a source of general information on a topic. It is a fair starting point from which they can do more intensive research of the topic. It can be a way of determining if a given idea or author is worth pursuing further. It can be the source of other texts on the topic.

    I suggest that they apply their critical thinking skills to evaluate the information as they would on more conventional sources. But good point Amy. Peer review applies to both Wikipedia…

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    1. Kerrin O'Rourke

      Vocational Trainer and Learning Facilitator at Workplace Training

      In reply to David Akenson

      Agreed, David. The key point is apply critical thinking skills to reading and evaluating any "authority" or source, conventional or what we might call the new media. wikipeadia has lots of "gatekeepers" and the trick is to apply critical literacy to the whole lot of them.

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  21. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great article, working in IT, every 6 months or so we start a new project and Google, SAP or other Forums and Wikipedia are the only way we are able to do our jobs

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