Martyn McLaughlin, Scotsman (Edinburgh), June 21, 2008
WIKIPEDIA and other online research sources were yesterday blamed for Scotland’s falling exam pass rates.
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) said pupils are turning to websites and internet resources that contain inaccurate or deliberately misleading information before passing it off as their own work.
The group singled out online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which allows entries to be logged or updated by anyone and is not verified by researchers, as the main source of information.
Standard Grade pass rates were down for the first time in four years last year and the SPTC is now calling for pupils to be given lessons on using the internet appropriately for additional research purposes “before the problem gets out of hand”.
Eleanor Coner, the SPTC’s information officer, said: “Children are very IT-savvy, but they are rubbish at researching. The sad fact is most children these days use libraries for computers, not the books. We accept that as a sign of the times, but schools must teach pupils not to believe everything they read.
“It’s dangerous when the internet is littered with opinion and inaccurate information which could be taken as fact.
“Internet plagiarism is a problem. Pupils think ‘I’ll nick that and nobody will notice’, but the Scottish Qualifications Authority has robust ways of checking for plagiarism and parents are worried their children will fail their exams.”
Ronnie Smith, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said there was a higher risk of inaccurate information on the internet than in books. He added: “We need to make sure youngsters don’t take what they read online as fact.”
Several further education institutions have already banned students from using the interactive encyclopaedia. At one college in Vermont in the US, a history professor found several students repeated the same error in exam papers. On discovering the information came from Wikipedia, the college outlawed its future use.
Ms Coner said overuse of the internet also meant students did not develop interpretative skills.
She said: “Pupils are in danger of believing what they read. It’s part of our short-cut culture, where we will do anything to pass a test, without properly engaging with the information or questions that are being asked.
“It’s all very well to glance at a website for research, but you have to check what you are reading is correct. Anything can be untrue. I can claim to be a world expert on anything if I set up a website on the internet.”
Alan Johnson, the UK Education Secretary, was lambasted earlier this year for suggesting the website could be a positive educational tool for children.
He described the internet as “an incredible force for good in education”, singling out Wikipedia for praise.
A disclaimer on Wikipedia states “it is important to note that fledgling, or less well monitored, articles may be susceptible to vandalism and insertion of false information”.
Boasting over two million articles, Wikipedia is used by about 6 per cent of internet users, significantly more than the traffic to more authorised sites, such as those of newspapers. Its articles are mainly edited by a team of volunteers.
‘There is a great deal of misinformation on the net’
LAST week I heard the writer Colin Bateman describe how, on looking himself up on Wikipedia, he was dismayed to discover that his young son had gone online and added the sentence: “Mr Bateman is currently suffering from penile dysfunction.” Fortunately his dad saw the funny side—and was proud his child could spell “dysfunction” correctly.
In common with students everywhere, I use Wikipedia as a research tool, and so does my son. Occasionally, I come across areas where there is academic dissent—for example on whether Homer was an individual poet, and this is usually clearly indicated.
There are subjects on which I wouldn’t trust any open-edit web resource, because I’ve come across too many conspiracy theorists in my time. But generally I think the biggest risk of using any internet source is that it leads to plagiarism, intended or unintended.
It is so easy to cut and paste, meaning only to put together some useful notes, and then to draw on them too heavily without acknowledging the source. At the extreme it is all too easy to buy “off the peg” essays on any subject.
When I was studying public health, we were trained to test the reliability of health-related websites, because there is a great deal of subjective misinformation on the net which may appear reliable.
The great strength of the internet is that it means we can amass information very readily, but it is hard to distinguish between authoritative, scientifically tested information, and something more akin to rumour.
One topic in my son’s Higher History course is the civil rights movement in the US. Starting from the simplest of internet queries, it wasn’t long before he got into quite contentious issues, which were presented in very partial terms by organisations with vested interests.
It was hugely useful to him to develop the skill of challenging what was presented as “fact”, but it is a skill that has to be learnt, and which many internet users won’t have. Of course, that skill isn’t just useful for assessing the reliability of the internet. Mr Bateman, for example, earns his living by making up stories.
o Miranda Harvey is a parent of a pupil at Boroughmuir High School, Edinburgh.
POLITICIANS and their parties are among those Wikipedia entries most vulnerable to deliberate misinformation.
During his time in Downing Street, Tony Blair may have been alarmed to find himself slurred as “George Bush’s bitch-boy”.
The SNP’s entry has previously seen the party described as one “influenced by childish Jacobitism”, while Scottish Labour has been dubbed a “fascist organisation”.
AS WELL as political heavy-hitters, the realm of celebrity is a favourite for Wikipedia’s mischief-makers.
At different times, Kylie Minogue has had her genealogical history thrown into doubt after her entry claimed that she was “the more beautiful and talented older sister” of Michael Jackson.
Robbie Williams suffered an even crueller entry—it was at one point alleged on Wikipedia that he made a living from eating hamsters in pubs in and around Stoke.
WIKIPEDIA is seen by some as a blank canvas where self-publicists can promote themselves. In 2006, a call centre worker from Glasgow was exposed after concocting an elaborate alter ego through his Wikipedia page, which gave the impression he was a highly decorated war hero.
Alan Mcilwraith, renaming himself Captain Sir Alan, claimed to have been an officer in the Parachute Regiment, who finished top of his class at Sandhurst before going on to become a terrorism expert.
After two years of conducting this charade, someone who knew Mcilwraith revealed the sham.
[Editor’s Note: American Renaissance’s August 2008 cover article on Wikipedia can be read here.]