The rise of Wikipedia and other communally aggregated reference materials on the internet has created a new set of challenges for educators: How accurate or reliable are these sources for student research, and what kind of policies should educators set regarding their use?

The emergence of these new online reference tools is too recent a phenomenon for most educators who spoke with eSchool News to have formed clear policies that address these sites, and opinions vary widely as to how useful or reliable such tools are for student research. But the educators we spoke with did agree on one thing: No matter what approach schools take, the use of these resources and their growing popularity underscore the need for students to learn and practice solid information-literacy skills.

“Wikis” are collaborative web sites that represent the ongoing, collective work of many authors. Similar to a blog in structure and logic, a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete, or modify content that has been placed on a site–including the work of previous authors–using only a browser interface.

The most popular and well-known of these sites is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that allows anyone to post a new entry or edit a previously existing one. Drawing on the knowledge and experience of a vast community of users, Wikipedia boasts approximately 3.2 million articles in more than 200 languages. Since its launch in 2001, it has grown into a clearinghouse of free information on topics ranging from medieval art to nanotechnology.

But critics say its strength–the fact that anyone can post or edit a listing–is also its greatest weakness. Unlike content published in newspapers, books, and other traditional media, Wikipedia material can be submitted by just about anyone, regardless of his or her knowledge of the subject matter–and often without having to volunteer any identifying information.

This lack of accountability was demonstrated in November when John Seigenthaler, a one-time administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, complained in an op-ed piece published in USA Today that a biography of him on Wikipedia claimed he had been suspected in the assassinations of the former attorney general and his brother, President John F. Kennedy. The erroneous information reportedly appeared on the site for about four months before it was removed.

Less than a week after Seigenthaler’s op-ed piece was published, Wikipedia tightened its submission policy. The site now requires users to register before they can create articles, said Jimmy Wales, founder of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based service. But site visitors still will be able to edit content already posted without registering.

Wales said he hopes the new registration requirement will limit the number of articles being created. While it won’t prevent people from posting false information, the new process will make it easier, he said, for the site’s 600 active volunteers to review and remove factual errors, slanderous statements, and other material that runs afoul of Wikipedia policy.

The Seigenthaler episode notwithstanding, such errors appear to be the exception rather than the rule–at least when it comes to science. In a side-by-side comparison of articles covering a broad swath of the scientific spectrum, Wikipedia was about as accurate in covering scientific topics as Encyclopedia Britannica, according to an article published Dec. 14 by the journal Nature (see related story on page 21).

Traditionalists, however, remain skeptical of Wikipedia’s reliability as a source. Linda Williams, president of the American Association of School Librarians, says communal online resources such as Wikipedia “aren’t acceptable resources for students–but perhaps they will be in the future.”

Yet, for educators, the challenge isn’t going away any time soon. According to the web traffic rankings site Alexa.com, Wikipedia ranks second in popularity among all reference sites, trailing only Yahoo and ahead of popular resources such as MapQuest and Encyclopedia Britannica Online. What’s more, Wikipedia is the 37th most visited web site overall, Alexa says.

Instead of pretending that Wikipedia and similar sites don’t exist, experts say it’s important to help students understand and practice good research habits.

Educators need to teach students “how to evaluate information in all respects,” said Della Curtis, coordinator of the Office of Library Information Services for Baltimore County Public Schools. Curtis said students need help in distinguishing between sources, and part of being a “knowledge worker” is helping them determine the reliability of sources.

Tom Hoffman, a former teacher who maintains a blog in the Ed-Tech Insider section of eSchool News Online, believes a few “old-school” skills are necessary to help evaluate these types of resources: close reading and the use of multiple sources.

Students should be taught not to rely too much on a single source and to cross-reference sources against each other, Hoffman explained. He also said educators “don’t stress careful, close reading of text as much as we should,” and he notes that students should be careful to check the editing history of entries posted on sources such as Wikipedia. Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey and another Ed-Tech Insider for eSN Online, summed up the dilemma facing educators in a blog entry posted last fall:

“Our whole concepts of accuracy and trust and truth are being challenged and redefined. This feels like a huge shift for educators,” Richardson wrote. “I don’t think we can fight these changes; the question becomes, how do we best navigate them?”