In the latest round in the fight between the educational system and technological progress, New Jersey schools are talking about banning students from using Wikipedia as a resource in the classroom. Their argument: there is too much unverified information that is so easy to access that students may be tempted to use it as a primary source. In other words, students are lazy and don’t know any better.
No encyclopaedia should be used as a primary source for the simple fact that the articles themselves are watered down versions of primary sources: books written by experts with direct experience in the subject. An encyclopaedia is a good starting point because it gives a broad summary of the topic and shows where one should look next. How do you start researching a topic that you know absolutely nothing about? Wikipedia is actually a superior resource in this respect because articles are required to have citations or they get flagged, and you can simply click on the citation link to find out where the information came from. Now you have primary sources to base your research on. Wikipedia also teaches collaboration and allows students to revise articles and share other primary information that they may have found (with proper citations of course).
This is where educators need to step up to the plate. Students need to be educated on the difference between primary and secondary sources, and graded appropriately when they fail to use the proper
I had this discussion with a good friend, Henry, and his take on it was: “Call me old-fashioned, but when I was in school the teachers actually KNEW the subject they were teaching and could spot a paraphrased encyclopaedia article a mile away. The Internet is the greatest tool to locate obscure information, yet teachers act like you should spend your days crawling through the card catalog at the local library (do they even USE card catalogs anymore?) Instead of being afraid of the technology and restricting its use, they should be teaching students how to use the technology effectively.”