Many tutors, faculty, and other members of academic staff are sceptical about the validity of non-traditional online resources, especially those where provenance is difficult or impossible to establish. It would appear that instead of teaching critical evaluation skills and helping learners to situate non-traditional resources within larger information-seeking frameworks, tutors commonly advise that platforms such as Wikipedia should be totally avoided, particularly true within the United States (US).
"For that one, no, but for the other two projects they were – they both said we had to have three sources, only one of them could be from a website, and it had to be a reliable website, which is the code word for ‘You can’t use Wikipedia’."
USA, emerging female, age 17
This creates a tension between academia and learninG as our participants rarely, if ever, find that a source such as Wikipedia provides them with false or poor quality information.
Participant: Yes just because generally anybody can write anything on Wikipedia so you don’t know if it’s true or not true. You could change – I mean we could go on there and change it to something just to do it. So they just say it’s an unreliable source.
Interviewer: In the stuff that you’ve looked up on Wikipedia have you ever been sort of caught out in thinking something was true that wasn’t?
Participant: I actually haven’t. Not yet.
USA, embedding female, 23
"I just don’t – I really don’t understand why Wikipedia is so taboo because – I mean, I do understand that anyone can add information on there but then again anyone can make a website, anyone can make a journal, it doesn’t make it like an educational source."
USA, emerging female, age 19
The convenience of these types of resources means that their use is almost inevitable, especially by students who are encountering a new topic area or are refreshing their understanding. This kind of use is mirrored in the behaviour of faculty members, who also use Wikipedia and Google to browse, and get themselves up to speed on unfamiliar topics. But this use is hidden by learners from their instructors, because they are well aware that non-traditional resources, of which Wikipedia is the exemplar, are not viewed as legitimate by their educational institution.
Not only will learners be wary of citing sources of this type, they also will not discuss their use in formal contexts, such as the lecture theatre or class room.
This furtive thinking and behaviour around open-web resources such as Wikipedia masks the level of use of non-traditional resources and also masks the methods learners use to increase their understanding of subjects, creating what we have called the learning black market. The point at which learning takes place is often not being discussed because either explicitly or implicitly learners are being told by their educational intuitions or perceive that the educational institutions view that their information-seeking practices are not legitimate.
In many cases this has led our participants to cite ‘acceptable’ sources which they haven’t properly engaged with. Resources that are cited but not read become an academic façade for the learning that often has taken place by using Wikipedia, YouTube and blog posts.
"…he wants me to try and go find another source or go look up a book about it that was written by somebody that was approved, you know is credible. But a lot of times people will – they’ll look up their source online… – figure out the information they need and then they’ll just quote another source or they’ll cite another source."
USA, emerging male, age 19
A common example of this practice, as discussed by our participants, was to cite the references from a Wikipedia article but not the article itself.
"Also you know I have put Wikipedia as a source, but at the bottom there is like a ton of sources. You can use any one of those sites or books that they use for their actual article. So I can just go through – like go on Wikipedia and look up like – and just take five other sources and put it in my paper. It is like ‘Yes I used these sources’."
USA, establishing male, age 19
Of course this style of citing unread, unreviewed sources pre-dates the web. However, we would argue that the prevalence of non-traditional sources, which provide focused ‘answers’ has amplified this practice and that the ‘banning’ approach of some academic staff is simply widening the gap between the students’ actual learning practices and the academic requirements.
"Yes, I do find I quite often go against what the teachers ask me to do, because I have my preferences. So if they ask me to look at a website, or to look at a book, I tend to – for example, if they give me a website to look at and I know that I’ve already found one that I like and I know my way around, I’ll use that one instead."
UK, emerging female, age 17
The concept of the learning black market is significant for libraries and those populating the institutional virtual learning environment/learning management system as many students, especially those in the earlier educational stages (last year of high school/secondary school and first-year college/university undergraduate students), may be engaging with institutional services to simply find legitimate, citable sources rather than to deepen their understanding of a subject.
In fact, it was not uncommon for our participants to characterise the library as only the location of highly legitimate physical sources, most notably, books. Often this was because they had been required to cite a set number of non-web based resources by their tutor as a method of ensuring that at least some traditional sources were used.
The prevalence of the learning black market tends to fade as learners reach the later educational stages (third/fourth year college/university undergraduate and graduate students) because their increasing expertise in their chosen discipline provides them with the subject knowledge and expertise to determine valid information.
"I usually check. I try to test the information, if it’s – my judgment, or also my knowledge in the subject or – or I will read more to see if the information is right or not. I don’t trust it, like from the first second."
USA, embedding female, age 45
The faculty we interviewed for the visitors and residents project certainly used it when they felt a need. We would argue that the use of Wikipedia is more uniform than this research would indicate because later-stage learners are simply more confident in admitting that they use it.
The learning black market was originally discussed in a blog post by David White (2011).
The learning black market also is evident when students collaborate or share sources online using services such as Facebook. The fear of being accused of plagiarism or collusion means that learners often are wary of discussing their learning practices in Social Media. This is especially important to consider if you are planning to engage your users via these kinds of platforms. It is also important to account for the fact that you represent the authority of the institution and are likely to be regarded with suspicion in online social spaces.
The 'Crowdsourcing: the wiki way of working' infoKit explains an approach to organising work that is in some ways the opposite of traditional planning and management, instead it focuses on the wisdom of the crowd.