Professors debate use of Wikipedia in the classroom

By on November 7, 2006

One of the most relied on Internet resources for college students today is But how reliable is it? Quinnipiac students and professors alike all have different opinions on the popular Internet encyclopedia. Wikipedia, which gets more Web traffic than, was the focus of a study taken part in by Quinnipiac professor Alexander Halavais, who is a firm supporter of the ever-growing Web site.

“I would absolutely recommend using Wikipedia to students, but only if they know how to use it the correct way,” Halavais said.

The correct way, according to Halavais, is not to cite or quote the contents of its information, but to use it as a “starting point” for research. He believes that Wikipedia is a key essential to beginning research.

“It would be frankly dumb not to use Wikipedia. I haven’t met anyone who is serious about research that hasn’t used Wikipedia,” Halavais said.

Apparently, Halavais has not discussed the matter with colleague and Quinnipiac professor Raymond Foery. “To me, Wikipedia is totally useless,” Foery said. “Anyone could write an article on film history. I have a Ph.D. in film history. There is no distinction (between the two). Everything is equal and therefore is of no value.”

Wikipedia, according to its Web site, is a “Web-based free content encyclopedia project” which is written by volunteers, who call themselves “wikipedians.” Anyone who has access to the Internet has the ability to add or delete an entry from the encyclopedia.

Halavais mentioned that these wikipedians are volunteers who are not officially affiliated with Wikimedia, the organization that runs Wikipedia. The wikipedians constantly check the log of changes made on Wikipedia articles for accuracy purposes. Because of the loosely run structure in which Wikipedia is controlled, many people are skeptical of the accuracy of information on the Web site. Among these people are many professors.

Kim Johnston, a sophomore psychology major, is one student who has had professors dismiss Wikipedia.

“I used to use Wikipedia until my professors specifically said you weren’t allowed to use it as a source,” she said.

Before hearing this from professors, Johnston was a regular user of Wikipedia. However, Johnston has since changed her opinion of the Web site. “I personally think it’s an easy way out of finding a source. It isn’t necessarily the most reliable, and having professors not allow this from the very beginning forces students to work harder for research,” she said.

Foery is among those professors prohibiting students from using Wikipedia as a source of information. “I do not allow my students to reference Wikipedia, not even to get started,” Foery said. “There are a lot of online sources that one can use – you are better off typing in your research topic in Google. If you can’t trust Wikipedia, what is the point of even getting started there?”

Halavais, on the other hand, believes that the Web site is a great place to start research, even though he acknowledges its article are not entirely accurate.

“When you really don’t know where to start with your research, Wikipedia is the place to go,” Halavais said. “There is definitely faulty information on Wikipedia, but you are usually going to be happy with what you get; however, you shouldn’t trust it.”

Not trusting the Web site is one thing that Halavais and Foery do agree on. Foery prefers using Web sites of encyclopedias with more credibility such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, Halavais argues that the Encyclopedia Britannica is not so much better than Wikipedia when it comes to accurately finding information.

“If you find something in the Encyclopedia Britannica and it is not somewhere else, it is probably wrong. Studies have shown that both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica have errors. Everything has errors; you just have to be skeptical of everything you read, online or not,” Halavais said.

Sean Perkins, a sophomore public relations major, considers Wikipedia a great resource despite what Foery suggest.

“I think it is a valuable source of information. I use it a lot; it is really helpful,” Perkins said.

Halavais pointed out that everything on Wikipedia is supposed to be referenced, and that groups of scholars are beginning to check for errors. Halavais himself is in the process of forming a group of experts in the field of communications to fact-check sections of Wikipedia.

Halavais witnessed the birth of Wikipedia by being selected to take part on an editorial team for a Web site called Nupedia, which had the same intention of Wikipedia only the entries would be written by professors and experts in different fields. The project failed, but the idea spawned into what is now Wikipedia. The Web site has grown into one of the largest online encyclopedias, with a catalogue of more than five million articles in more than 250 different languages.


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