Yes, I let my students start with Wikipedia.
Yes, there are controversies over Wikipedia, but students use it. The general population uses it. Heck, most of the faculty I know use it when they need to understand a new topic.
So, the goal is to help them use it as an appropriate resource, or tool.
In my last blog post, I discussed the Digital Literacy Disconnect. The post deals with my growing realization that students don't know how to filter information and build a personal information architecture. Where my generation learned to use card catalogs and annual abstracts, my have learned to go to Wikipedia. Is it so horribly bad? As long as they use it as a research tool, no. If they think it is the end game, then yes.
At the beginning of the semester, I asked the students why Wikipedia was not an acceptable academic resource. The answers were as expected: too many editors, it is open for anyone to edit, not reliable, because the instructor said not to use it. Afterward their answers, Usually someone in the class pipes up and says that it is not a "Primary Source". This is when I get them to realize that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and as such is not a valid academic source for quotation or citation.
So, if it is not a valid academic source, why use it?
As I tell my students, when they answer my daily questions and build their blogs, Wikipedia is a fine place to start their research. In biology, the information in Wikipedia is rather good. Yes, there are some exceptions, but overall for general biology, it is a good starting point. The most important aspect of the Wikipedia pages is that they have references and external links. Both of these are an excellent resource for students.
Think about it. How many times have you used a peer reviewed article mainly because of the references the author used? Think about review articles; how many references did you look up after reading the review? If you think about your own research, don't you back track from one article to another? If an article is referenced many times, do you see it as something valuable? Something important? Maybe something you should know for your discipline?
We may start by doing an initial search, or maybe it was a paper recommended to us. Sometimes we come across it from journals we read monthly, but the process is using one article to look for other "informed opinions".
Have you ever tried to teach this to students? Did it work well?
I've found it a struggle to teach this to students, but when the student has used Wikipedia for this purpose, the transition to using journal articles is easier. It is just a matter of back tracking references. Gaining inspiration or methodological ideas from other authors. What is important is the research skill. Does it matter whether it was learned from Wikipedia or trying to instill in them our pre-digital research skills?
I'll leave you with a graphic that was sent to me. There are parts of the graphic I don't like (including the plagiarism comments), but it is eye opening.