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One of the many drawbacks from a de facto ban on Wikipedia in school is that students then aren't equipped to understand how the collaborative encyclopedia project works. They still use it, of course, with college students accessing it far more regularly than other demographics. (46% of college students use Wikipedia, compared to 36% of the online adult population). And students know that that's something frowned upon by teachers. But according to new research set to be published in the journal Information, Communication and Society, college students are not adept at assessing the credibility of Wikipedia articles, nor do they understand how information is contributed or articles edited.

The paper -- Young Adults' Credibility Assessment of Wikipedia -- was authored by Ericka Menchen-Trevino and Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University. Their research observed students while they performed online research tasks. According to an article in The Chronicle, the project wasn't originally aimed at studying students' Wikipedia usage specifically, but some of the data emerged organically.

The researchers found that the majority of students (77%) accessed Wikipedia at least once to accomplish their tasks. Of those who did, 47% got there via search, 19% went directly to Wikipedia, and the rest accessed the site via both methods.

College Students Rely on Wikipedia for Info, But Do They Understand How It Gets There?

But across the board, even among those who regularly used Wikipedia and those who had a positive opinion of the veracity of its content, the students demonstrated very little understanding of how the site works -- how articles are created, how edits added and tracked, and by whom. As one student commented, Wikipedia, I don't know if a normal person like me is allowed to edit it, but people are hired, and they edit, like, scholars, people that were expert in the technology, or in the issue.

In part, no doubt, because students have often heard that Wikipedia is somehow unreliable, many of them did tell the researchers that they know they should check the credibility of the sources. But they rarely did. Of the students who used Wikipedia to complete the research task they were assigned for the study, less than 25% actually verified that content, either by clicking on the links within Wikipedia to the references or by using a search engine and other websites to confirm the information.

None of the students made any references to Wikipedia policies and editing principals, such as the importance of neutral point of view or verifiability. The respondents also never mentioned discussion pages or an article's history page as ways to investigate the credibility of content on the site. There was no mention of the concept of Wikipedia editors who are not anonymous but have a documented editing history. Given their lack of mention, there is a good chance that these concepts are not familiar to our respondents.

Much of the research in the past has focused on whether or not Wikipedia is accurate (or as in a recent NYTimes story, who exactly is contributing to the knowledge-building efforts). This study is rather interesting because it looks instead on how average users (not contributors) approach the site. It's also another reminder of the importance of teaching students digital literacy and equipping them with the skills to assess the credibility of online resources, particularly those on Wikipedia.

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Audrey Watters


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