Critical Evaluation in the Collaborative Era

from Technology & Learning

What role should a wiki play in authentic research?

I began using critical evaluation techniques back in 1995, when I was choosing sites to add to my then-new portal, Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators. I would look at a potential entry and use a series of analytical questions to determine, first, if the content would be useful for teachers, followed by a rather formal process to determine the authority of the author and the validity of the information, and, finally, look at the navigability of the site.

I then created Web site critical evaluation tools for teachers and students to use based on my process—tools that have been used extensively over the years. As social collaborative tools such as blogs and podcasts proliferated, I added new tools to evaluate them. As even newer tools show up on the Web, I investigate them to determine how they can be used in education.

One of the new types of social collaborative tools I feel is useful to support teaching and learning is a wiki. With a wiki, a user creates and posts content, and then anyone else can log in and change or update the content, and all iterations are archived and accessible. For student collaboration, peer editing, note taking, and many other uses, the wiki is a great educational tool. Teachers can easily track student postings and acquisition of knowledge since all of the changes and updates are logged.

However, the multi-creator, informational character of the public wiki defies my ability to critically evaluate the information. One of the largest and best-known wikis is Wikipedia, which touts itself as a "free encyclopedia." I have difficulty, as a library media specialist and an educator, coming up with a process to evaluate the information located on a Wikipedia page. Granted, content creators who are passionate about a topic maintain these pages, but this passion may also lead to biased information. And does passion about a topic also mean the information is valid and reliable?

Since anyone can post content, and anyone can edit the content on a wiki, how do students determine if the information is correct? Do they look at every iteration of the page and try to determine the authority of everyone who edited the information? What about the fact that the creator's real name may not appear anywhere? True, Wikipedia does allow viewers to see all the edits made by other users. So should students then take a look at each editor's summary page to see if that particular user is posting to many Wikipedia pages on similar topics, which may (or may not) indicate he or she is an expert on the topic? The traditional methods of attempting to determine the authority of an author would include looking at the "About the Author" page, conducting a Web search on the author's name to find out how he or she is mentioned by others in the field, and doing a backward search on the author's Web page to see who links to the author's site. How does one complete this task on Wikipedia with so many authors of a single article and no real names?

Even if I go along with the users of Wikipedia who say that it is self-correcting—since so many volunteer "editors" monitor the pages and correct any erroneous information—I would still like to find out a little bit about these "editors" who are creating content with no vetting of their expertise. I did a little research on the Web and located a 2006 Harris Poll study indicating that in the United States, younger people are using the Web more than older people; Internet users are more likely affluent; and the majority of Net users have earned a high school diploma or less. So, the United States "editors" of content in Wikipedia may have one or all of these characteristics. However, Wikipedia reaches the entire world, not just the United States. Since only about 18 percent of the world's population uses the Internet, a potential Wikipedia "editor" is part of a small, select group. What about the expertise of the other 82 percent?

Wikipedia does have guidelines for the addition of content. The most important one is the requirement that information is "verifiable," and it asks the creators to include bibliographic citations to the original content. Why don't our students just conduct their own search, go directly to the original content, and use their own critical evaluation skills to determine if the information on the original site is valid and authoritative and meets their research needs? An argument can be made that, if the user did not know anything about a topic, he or she could use Wikipedia to acquire background information and keywords to begin his or her formal research. I agree that this might be a good use of this wiki. But, then again, the students are gathering the information from a person whom they know nothing about. How does this help them determine the reliability of information presented on topics they know nothing about?

There have been many high-profile cases regarding Wikipedia editors and entries—including a citizen finding erroneous information about himself in Wikipedia, to many noted instances of posting copyrighted information from both print and Web sources, to employees giving false credentials as editors. With a collaborative project this large, high numbers of such incidents might be expected. However, is this collaborative "encyclopedia" the place we want to send students to gather information? Why not have them use primary and secondary sources (not a tertiary source like Wikipedia) to allow them to employ their own critical evaluation skills to determine the authority and validity of information and to draw their own judgments about the relevant facts found in the original source?

Overall, I am most concerned about the creation of content that is "research worthy" by authors I know nothing about in online collaborative environments. Wikipedia is the most noted of these online collaborative tools, but there are many others. I don't have the answer for the best way to treat these tools in educational settings. Should we allow students to use these tools as "sources consulted" but not "sources cited"? How do we teach critical evaluation of information when we have no way to determine authority? I guess I have more questions than answers at this point. I will keep trying to figure it out.

Kathy Schrock is administrator for Technology, Nauset Public Schools, Orleans, MA. Her Web portal is