By Terry Freedman
There has been much debate in the blogosphere about the relative merits of Wikipedia and Britannica. Britannica, as is well-known, is regarded as an authoritative source of information which is written and peer-reviewed by experts in their fields. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is based on what might be called the free market principle. In traditional economic theory, if there was no government or other official intervention, consumers would have perfect knowledge of the market, because there would be no barrier to accessing the knowledge or passing it on to others. This would ensure that poor or over-priced goods and services would disappear quite rapidly because people would simply stop buying it.
The underlying principle of Wikipedia is exactly the same: misinformation will, sooner or later, come to light when a member of the community discovers it. At that point, unlike the situation with, say, discovering an etymological error in the Oxford English Dictionary, the person who discovered the mistake can immediately correct it.
Here is a summary of the arguments for and against Wikipedia as they have appeared in the blogosphere. I am afraid I have not kept track of who said what, but I believe that the lists below are an accurate representation of the arguments. I have not ascribed weighting to the arguments, which I think is a personal matter. However, I think it would be dangerous to merely count the number of points for and against.
At the end of the day, it seems to me that what is most important is not the source of information in itself, but the pupil’s ability to evaluate its plausibility and accuracy using a range of techniques.
Children can amend and contribute to knowledge base.
By same token, gets across to children that textbooks etc are not bibles: need to question and verify sources of information.
Kept up-to-date much more frequently than Britannica.
Is peer-reviewed by the world community.
Peer review by a broad spectrum of people means that more than one cultural viewpoint is taken into consideration (potentially).
In a comparison with Britannica, it was found that Wikipedia had an average of 4 mistakes per article whilst Britannica had an average of 3, so we could take the view that a difference is only a difference if it makes a difference.
A range of subjects can be covered which Britannica would probably not cover at all.
A relatively new development is the introduction of a new “language”: child- speak, in order to render the articles more accessible to children .
Expert-written article can be amended by someone who doesn’t have full knowledge of the subject.