In my work as instructional designer I have come across content that had links to Wikipedia entries on many different subjects. I just didn’t think that much of it because I use that source myself when I need a quick and down definition to something I don’t know. But is Wikipedia an appropriate source for e-learning content?
If you were asking me this question in 2005, I would have said no at the drop of a hat. In those days, you could hear rumors and chatter about false entries, biased entries that helped support an agenda, or simple pulpits for somebody’s rants. I have never posted anything on Wikipedia, or helped shape a post already there, so I cannot talk about the whole process. But you can go to Wikipedia and open an account for free (you don’t even need to provide an e-mail), and you can start helping by editing entries, they even claim that you do not have to be an expert in the field because you can help catch grammar or style missteps.
Wikipedia has come a long way, especially in subjects related to science, engineering and technology. Many of these entries have references included in the post that can be checked for accuracy or review. Some of the subjects are developed beyond to what a regular textbook would offer. This has happened thanks to the collaboration of thousands of people around the World who have volunteered their time and patience in editing entries in Wikipedia. This link provides the current statistics on Wikipedia. As time has passed, and as more people has participated in the process, Wikipedia has improved a lot. But even after all I have explained here, still many instructors are reluctant to using this source for their class content. I have bad news for them: most likely your students are using that content anyways, for good or for bad, so why not help them see if that content is good for them to use? The process of reviewing these entries requires critical thinking. You can start by reviewing the content in a particular post and point out where the flaws lie so that your students can form an idea of how reliable those sources are. I don’t think is good practice that you just tell them not to use those sources, and then they will turn around and use them behind your back anyways.
For some historic facts, things might get trickier. Nevertheless, I have seen many entries (like the Gettysburg address) that have references included. But I guess that would be open to debate. Many of these entries have images that help understand what the entry is about (I don’t know if copyright releases are in place before posting). Along the post and text there are other links included to other Wikipedia entries, videos, external pages, and so on. Even historical figures have entries in Wikipedia, from the past and the present. Highly publicized murderers, politicians, scientists, public figures, artists, singers, etc. have Wikipedia entries. It is rumored that many of them have people going into their entries to modify things they don’t like in it.
So if you have doubts about using Wikipedia for your course content, this should help you make up your mind: if Wikipedia was printed into a book the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, it will contain more than a million pages (and somebody is trying to do that). Many of the contributors in Wikipedia are actually experts volunteering their time for the project. There are references that you can check (which are not other Wikipedia entries). And of course, you can always go in and make the modifications yourself, if you find that the post is biased, incomplete, or inaccurate. At the end of the day, resisting to the use of Wikipedia is futile, your students are using it a lot, professionals are using it too. The argument that is not a reliable source of content is not accurate anymore.