Colin Brooke at Syracuse has some great thoughts about the recent brouhaha about the accuracy and trustworthiness of Wikipedia. How can we trust it, some are asking, when anyone can go in and write anything about a particular topic without editorial scrutiny? Suddenly, studies are springing up to check the accuracy of the posts. People are posting nonsense at Wikipedia to see if it gets edited out quickly or, god forbid, remains a part of the entry for a longer period of time thus confusing and misleading those who access the information. Ghastly.

If I sound cynical, it’s because, well, I’m cynical. Colin nails it when he says that we start with the totally wrong premise in this whole conversation, namely that

Authority/trustworthiness/reputation/credibility is something that pre-exists the research.

This is one of the most interesting changes that blogs and wikis are bringing about, the idea that we must learn to seek our own truths and not just rely on the interpretations of truth by others. The read/write Web by it’s very nature creates unedited texts that are going to have more and more influence and impact on how and what we read and believe. And, it requires us to think about new ways to teach students (and ourselves, for that matter) to find truth. Colin says it better than I can:

Believe me when I say that I’ve looked, and I have yet to see the writing handbook that doesn’t assume that the only valuable information on the Internet is that which mirrors the “real world.” Credibility (in this model) is to be validated, through reference to a “real world” identity, rather than tested or explored via multiple sources. There are a gazillion sites for verifying the credibility of web sites, very few of which offer the simple insight that dates back to Aristotle at least: credibility is something you earn and develop, not something you simply have. When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don’t earn credibility by citing an “authoritative source,” whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc. In other words, authority should be something that each of us assigns to our sources, not the other way around. It is the result of research, not a prerequisite.

The advantage of sites like Wikipedia is that much of this back-and-forth (as Liz explains at Joi’s site) is visible and public, and in that sense, Wikipedia offers students a chance to watch credibility-in-action. “Trustworthy information” is indeed important, but perhaps more important is that we offer students a chance to see how trustworthiness is developed, to see the conversations that may ultimately result in Encyclopedia Britannica articles. Rather than asking students to plug “authoritative quotes” into 5-paragraph containers, why not ask them to take a topic on Wikipedia, and research its validity? And if they find that there are pieces missing, why not encourage them to contribute? You telling me that stringing together blockquotes from authorities is going to teach them more about research than participating in a wiki might?

Amen to that. A wiki is a perfect tool to teach kids about finding truth and developing trust. Regular Weblog readers know that trust is something that has to be earned. It takes time for someone to be added to the blogroll. We’ve always taught students to assume that trust with textbooks and encyclopedias; if it’s in print, it must be right…right? But times are changing, and I would bet that as the Web’s influence continues to grow, truths are going to be challenged to an even greater degree, and it’s not going to be so easy for students to find the right answer or right quote. That has huge implications for education.