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Everyone today is talking about the Wikipedia blackout. Oddly enough, it seems as if Wikipedia is the only one really being talked about of all the many many internet sites that have declared support for the anti-SOPA/PIPA protest by ‘going dark’ for 24 hours. At least here in the UK.

I am not going to go into the intricacies of the two US bills that are proposed to ‘stop’ online piracy. I am not sure I really have the legal nounce to fully understand the implications of two complicated bills that are being proposed in an entirely different legal system to my own and there are many out there who are better qualified (or at least think they are) to discuss it in a more intellectual manner. I am concerned about both internet piracy and laws that appear to endorse censorship but I don’t feel as if I can make any public or definitive statement on the issue other than I beleive there is a need for better policing of the internet but that I am not convinced SOPA or PIPA are the way to achieve this.

What I am going to talk about, however, is articles like this one which throw out hyperbole about students ‘panicking’ over the blackout. I don’t know about any panic. My students yesterday seemed quite unaware of the need to panic and did not seem worried over the fact that they may not be able to get hold of any facts whatsoever from the internet today because Wikipedia is down. Maybe it is because of the way I have been encouraging decent internet research in my teaching? Or maybe not as I haven’t really had them as students that long. Maybe they are just more sensible than the ones who are reported as ‘panicking’? Or maybe the panic is merely a creation of the media based on extrapolation?

Fact is that there are other sites for research than Wikipedia and yet, according to research (Becta, 2008*; Mitchell, 2008 p112**) students mostly only use Wikipedia, BBC Bitesize and Google for their research. While these sites are fairly comprehensive, they are not the entire internet and research that is limited to only a few sites, like Wikipedia, is likely to be flawed in a number of ways. To teachers, Wikipedia is often seen as ‘the lazy option’ for students. It is very easy to get information using it, much easier than many other sites, and it does tend to come up first in any google search (which may be why many students use it). The main problem teachers have with the site is the open editing option. Now, yes, I am aware that there are quite careful peer review checks in place whereby information needs to be referenced before it is accepted and so on. This prevents a certain amout of inaccuracy and downright lying and bias. However, there is still a risk that these are still going to be present and, to the average layman in any field of study, there is no real way of telling if the information is to be trusted. This is why, in any internet search, I always advocate the checking of multiple sites – chasing references from Wikipedia to check their accuracy, actively looking for sites which contradict the information, comparing sites for their reliability and considering factors such as political, religious and social bias before you commit to any one view. It is really nothing more than an extension of what researchers have done for years – just in libraries and conference halls rather than internet sites and webforums. One thing I always encourage among higher ability students and those in University or college is to look for specialist search engines for their subject areas. For example, the National Library of Medicine has a searchable database of medical and biomedical science journals and there are others for other subjects. University libraries are often helpful in this regard. These sites provide a more focussed, higher level search than Google and access to articles which can be read as pdfs on screen (and even printed out) for free (in some cases – many of them do charge to read the full article but you can still access an abstract).

So, yes, I am using the perfectly justified blackout of Wikipedia today to highlight something other than SOPA and PIPA. I am bandwagoning on this issue in order to point out another issue – the lazy research methods of our students. I am hoping that, instead of panicking as the media seems to beleive they are doing, students worldwide are now thinking of ways to do without the useful and easy Wikipedia site and considering more grass roots style research. They may, gods forbid, even consider maybe, possibly, reading an actual book or journal to get the information they need***. Then, when Wikipedia does come back online, they might have a few more options for finding out information and checking the veracity of that information.

And look, I have provided actual references and stuff as if this were a proper essay and not just some random blurbages from my mind. One of them is not even available on the internet 🙂

*Becta (2008) How do boys and girls differ in their use of ICT? Becta (Coventry) http://www.becta.org.uk

**Mitchell R (2008) Using ICT in teaching and learning science In Harlen W (ed) (2008) ASE Guide to Primary Science The Association for Science Education (Hatfield)

*** Does this make me sound like a Luddite? Well, I am expected by professional teaching ethics to actively support looking at proper peer reviewed and checked books and journals as well as using the internet. You can use the internet to check these too, you know…