Although I didn’t watch the Grammy’s the other night, I heard on NPR the next day about how a bunch of crazed Justin Bieber fans, angered by the fact that the Bieb didn’t win best new artist, edited the Wikipedia page of Esperanza Spalding – a relatively unknown jazz singer who took home the coveted trophy instead. The edits ranged from the silly (like changing her middle name to quesadilla) to the more serious (such as stating that she stole the award and should “go die in a hole!”)
As luck would have it, the next morning a teacher at my school mentioned the event to me stating, “See? This is why students can’t use Wikipedia as a source!”
Queue Library Girl!
The first time I work with a group of students doing research, I like to tell them a story. It goes a little like this…
Once upon a time, when I was in the 6th grade, (and dinosaurs were roaming the earth), I was assigned a research paper on Romania. At that time, I went to a small school that didn’t have a library, and since I was required to reference at least one book, (that wasn’t an encyclopedia), in my paper, I had to go in search of information at my local public library. That said, when I got to the public library, their one and only book on Romania was lost, so they had to borrow one from another branch. When it finally arrived, it was a dusty volume published in 1948. However, since it was my only option, I had to use it. At this point, I remind students that although I am ancient, I was in the 6th grade in the mid 1980’s. Therefore, the chances of all the information in my circa 1948 resource being accurate were pretty slim.
Instead of a happy ending, this story leads us to a series of questions:
My first step in the research process was to go to the public library, since my school didn’t have a library of its own; if they were assigned a research paper on Romania today, what would their first step be?? (Answer: Google Romania).
In my story, how many sources was I able to find and how long did it take me to find them? (Answer: 1 source in approximately 2 weeks)
Then we Google Romania.
In their story, how many sources do they find and how long does it take? (Answer: millions in about 5 seconds!)
What problem did I face as a researcher? (Answer: In addition to finding a place to park my T-Rex in the school parking lot, finding even a single source on Romania was tough).
In contrast, what problem do they face as researchers? (Answer: finding the best sources among millions and millions that appear after just a quick search.)
And then we begin the work of figuring out how to tell the difference between a good source and a bad one.
Incidents like the one involving Bieber fever provide educators in general, but librarians in particular, with a golden opportunity to discuss how information works while armed with a timely and relevant example. But before we do that, we need to ask ourselves some important questions, because to be frank, how our students use information has implications that are far more important than the grade they get on their next research assignment. Regardless of what sources of information students are allowed to use at school, the reality is that today’s young people increasingly turn to blogs, wikis and social networks for answers to all of life’s questions: be they academic or personal. Given that, we MUST ask ourselves: are we helping our students cultivate the skills they need to evaluate all of the information that they encounter in their digital lives? Instead of just forbidding students to use Wikipedia, are we instead teaching them to evaluate ALL information for relevancy, reliability and bias? Rather than just blocking and ignoring social networks like Facebook, are we helping our students understand the possible consequences of their digital footprints while also showing them how to be responsible online citizens? What’s more, (and perhaps most significant), do we as educators, (who did not, for the most part, grow up in a digital world), even possess these important skills ourselves?
Frequently, I fear, the answer is no.
Unfortunately, the knee jerk reaction of banning Wikipedia, (and other social media websites), is one I hear offered all too often by classroom teachers, tech facilitators and, yes, even librarians facing the inevitable frustrations that accompany research in the digital age. I’m not claiming I know why this happens, but I suspect it’s because a) it’s just easier to say “you can’t use that site” than it is to teach students how to evaluate information and b) it keeps us, their teachers, from having to address the gaps in our own knowledge and skills in this area. Either way, this response does nothing to prepare students for life in the web 2.0 world.
To that end, I’ve spent much of the last couple of days talking about the Justin Bieber/Esperanza Spalding wiki-war with as many teachers/students who will listen. I’ve found it that it has opened the door to the kinds of discussions we should already be having with our students.
The bottom line is this: today’s students will never again face the dilemma I did as a 6th grader. Never again will students find themselves in an information wasteland, forced to settle for one, grossly out of date, resource simply because it’s the only one available. Rather, our student researchers face a whole new set of more complex problems that are not addressed by forbidding the use of certain types of websites. After all, what happens when we’re not around to prevent them from turning to Wikipedia for answers to life’s more serious questions, (like how to prevent pregnancy, how HIV is transferred from one person to another or how to find help for someone with an eating disorder, etc), when we haven’t taught them how to tell the difference between good info and bad?
Psssst: Since I mentioned NPR in this post, I thought I'd also gently nudge you here in the hopes that if you care about public broadcasting, you'll make your voice heard.