I’m in two minds about the kids using Wikipedia as a reference.
And I love the idea of the information in it being free, helping to spread knowledge without it being shackled by cost and commercial interests. Britannica has banner and pop-under ads, for heaven’s sake. Do I want my encyclopaedia splattered with adverts for horoscopes and the US Green Card Program? I don’t think so. (Though if you subscribe — A$69.95 per year — there are no ads.)
There’s little doubt that Wikipedia can be subject to vandalism or bias, depending on who edits the articles. You need to have your BS detection running constantly, just in case Stephen Colbert has fiddled with what you’re reading. But in most cases, problems get corrected reasonably quickly.
Obviously the key here is to verify what you read, to check against and use multiple sources. There’s other known generally reliable free sources online, too, such as the CIA World Fact Book, and the not-very-catchily-named Citizenium, which is subject to peer reviews before user-contributed articles are made public. A kind of Wikipedia with the screws tightened a bit, if you will.
And maybe it’s worth investing in a commercial encyclopaedia (something more up-to-date than the 7 year old copy of Encarta that I got way-back-when under that 100% rebate deal).
Certainly with Wikipedia becoming (I suspect) the dominant online reference work, it’ll be interesting to see where these types of publications go in future.
Whichever way it goes, learning to question and verify your sources is a vital part of any research, and something I’ll be encouraging the kids to do when they need to look up information on Wikipedia or elsewhere.
One measure of an online reference’s worth is how up to date it is. So, which entries on Australia have been updated with the election result? As of last night:
- CIA World Factbook — head of government: Prime Minister John Winston HOWARD (since 11 March 1996); Deputy Prime Minister Mark VAILE (since 6 July 2005)
- Citizendium — Australia’s current Head of government is Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party. The opposition is the Labor Party, led by Kevin Rudd.
- Wikipedia — Since 3 December 2007, shortly after the 2007 election, the Labor Party led by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been in power in Canberra …
- Britannica — Not listed on the free version of the Australia entry, but shown in a list of Australian Prime Ministers: Kevin Rudd Labor 2007-
- Encyclopedia.com — Most recent election referred to is 2004, and also refers to the outdated view that: There are four main political parties: Liberal, Labor, National, and Democratic.