The Future Of History: Reviving Primary Sources in the Age of Wikipedia

by Adam Soclof

The 1995 remake of the film “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” stars Kirk Cameron as Dexter Riley, a so-so college student who is struck by lightning while browsing his computer online, effectively downloading the contents of the Internet to his brain. As Dexter’s self-confidence as an information warehouse inflates his ego, a sagely teacher warns him that the information on the Internet isn’t always accurate, and shouldn’t be accepted at face value. Sure enough, while hustling the quiz show circuit with his new superpowers, Dexter calls up a website of information about ancient Greece only to discover that this information was recorded incorrectly online. More than 15 years later, the premise of this film offers a prescient message about the importance of managing the relationship between students and educators in a world where a wealth of information is freely available to all.

Today, teachers still rely heavily on textbooks to teach material. With students increasingly capable of searching for information online — not to mention increasingly dependent on procuring this information (e.g., turning to Wikipedia for quick answers for papers and exam-preparation) — it is increasingly difficult for these students to accept the authority of assigned secondary sources at face value. Rather than place limitations on students’ independent exploration for information, educators and digital information specialists should partner to help students develop the critical faculties necessary in order to assess the quality of the information they discover outside of the classroom.

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