Monday, January 29, 2007

The Wikipedia battlefront comes home

A little skirmish in the Wikipedia war was fought at home tonight. My 9-year-old daughter used Wikipedia to research her homework. Does that make me a bad parent?

First the background. In the last two weeks, both my children have come home from school with an assignment to find X amount of facts about X topic. For my 6-year-old, CJ, it was five facts about bears. For CJ, I called up MSN Encarta for him through the school's website and helped him navigate the text, images, and sound clips of bears. It was simple and painless.

Today, my daughter, Alla, came home with the assignment to find three facts about the explorer Hernando de Soto, including something "important" about his expeditions. Alla, being older than CJ, got on the computer and typed in "hernando desoto" into Google (that's him above, right). She clicked around and found his dates, (c. 1500 - May 21, 1524) Two of the pages provided little else - either too complex or lacking any more substantive information suitable for a 4th grader. I sensed her difficulty, so I sat down with her and we began scrolling through the results screen. She sees a link for Wikipedia.

"Go there," she said.

I pause, thinking of how much I've heard about Wikipedia recently. At Branford High School, vandals wrote up a fake description of the school, complete with courses on drug use, silly student groups, and comments from clueless parents. At Middlebury College, officials have banned the use of Wikipedia in research. Others in higher education, like Ken Smith, believe educators should be encouraging students to explore how knowledge works, rather than declaring some sources off limits. Victoria Davis found herself in Wikipedia - literally - and hints that maybe we as educators shouldn't keep ignoring Wikipedia, warts and all.

So where does that leave me with my daughter, who is eager to complete her homework before dinner? As far as she's concerned, Wikipedia has been around forever, which is not that far from the truth. Where else is she going to get those three facts about de Soto, including something important about his expeditions? So in we clicked.

Of course the site is well-laid out. I showed her the table of contents and asked her which headings would probably have the information she seeks. She pointed out the one about his expedition to Florida. And there it was under the heading "After Effects" - four paragraphs describing the impact of his 16th Century journey to Florida. Being more comfortably literate, I told her to read the first sentences in each of the middle three paragraphs. Voila, she finds out that the records of his expedition helped contribute geographic knowledge of Florida to those back in Europe. It's that simple.

But is it painless? Does this simply reinforce that Wikipedia is a wholly trusted resource, no questions asked? Did I do all I was supposed to do? We looked at the site together and I showed her a strategy to read for specific information. From her earlier research, she had enough previous knowledge to at least recognize if there were glaring inaccuracies. She used the Wikipedia information as just one of two sources for her assignment. It was a much more careful process than the one I followed with the MSN Encarta entry with CJ.

No one said it is supposed to be easy.

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