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How online research can make the grade

As schools gear up to start a new academic year, the intersection of online media and the education industry is more complicated than ever--even the once-verboten Wikipedia is on the table.

Not too long ago, the golden rules for high school and college students turning to the Web as a research tool were simple: treat digital content that's never been in print with suspicion. Be careful what you Google. And thou shalt not touch Wikipedia.

But the Web has grown up a bit in the past few years, and the presence of digital research journals, fact-finding social media tools, textbook exchanges, and e-readers have made it a much more complicated landscape for anyone who encounters the education world's slow march beyond the traditional textbook. When things have shaken out, it may be a world where free-for-all online information hubs are accepted--or, if proponents of "collaborative knowledge" have their way, even embraced.

"We have 16 million articles," said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. "It's impossible to say that they're all going to be great and you're not going to find any vandalism. So a healthy dose of media literacy helps any student looking at that information."

In a 2005 study, scientific journal Nature found, based on a survey of articles pertaining to various disciplines, that Wikipedia was on a par with Encyclopedia Britannica when it came to the accuracy of information within. It was a win for supporters of the idealistic concept of collaborative knowledge. And some academics say that it's now sufficiently stable and commonplace that they're all right with students using it for basic knowledge--just not citing it.

"With more and more people using (Wikipedia), it has done a better job of being able to self-correct than in the Wild West days of when it first started up and you had no idea who was vouching for any of this stuff," said Chad O'Connor, a consultant and adjunct professor of communications at Emerson College. But he, too, argued that students should be aware of what they're getting into. "It's an encyclopedia, and just as I would with anyone who would use the old-school system of an Encyclopedia Britannica, it's a great starting point to get a big, 50-foot view of the topic and the subject matter."

"Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source," Walsh said. "We completely support that. We would not encourage people to cite Wikipedia in their papers. That's not what it's for." He added that the Wikimedia Foundation has started an experimental outreach with some U.S. universities to bring faculty and students into the corps of Wikipedia contributors, specifically with regard to articles about public policy--one of the site's more contentious areas.

But just as the academic community has started to accept the inevitability of sites like Wikipedia, the Web is also about to foist what may be the biggest complexity it has encountered since the advent of the free-for-all encyclopedia. As the school year starts, the recent proliferation of question-and-answer sites--like the brainy Quora and the soon-to-be-everywhere Facebook Questions--may prove to be students' next last-ditch time-saver and teachers' next digital bogeyman.

When Facebook Questions leaves a limited beta test, high school and college students who have been spending massive chunks of time on the social network will be able to seek answers for their confusing homework questions with a potential audience of 500 million more or less alongside their photo albums and FarmVille games. It's unlikely that students will be attempting to cite Facebook Questions answers in research papers, but calculus problem sets and English lit response pieces are another story. After enough Facebook queries of, "What does the red hunting hat stand for, anyway?" teachers may be nostalgically recalling the days when Cliffs Notes were their biggest fast-knowledge-fix problem.

"Teachers hate it because it's not authoritative; they don't know who's written the content," said Nature Publishing Director Vikram Savkar, who has been spearheading the company's new online science resource tool, Scitable. The ambitious quasi-start-up aims to cobble together the factors that make Wikipedia and Q&A services so appealing--fast, free access to knowledge, channels of communication outside the classroom--but with the backing of a respected journal publisher and the approval of teachers. "I think that most faculty know that the migration of students into Google is not going to stop," Savkar said. "There's no point in trying to prevent students from searching on the Web for resources. What they're looking for are authoritative resources on the Web that they can point their students to."

Obviously, something needed to change. The potential benefits of bringing education into the social-media age just can't be ignored, from lectures turned into podcasts on iTunes to teachers in underfunded school districts turning to sites like DonorsChoose to seek micro-benefactors. But the bureaucracy and institutionalization has been tough to shake, and the textbook market continues to be criticized for making negligible changes to books in the name of profiting off a new edition while being too slow to pick up on sudden and major changes--like four years ago, when the International Astronomical Union kicked Pluto off the roster of "classical planets" just in time for a new school year to start with freshly outdated science textbooks.

Publishers as well as academic institutions have been poking their way into the e-reader market, launching titles for Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iPad and a Netflix-like textbook rental service called Chegg has been further complicating the market. The days of a $200 biology textbook that only gets used for a semester may be limited.

Textbook publishing conglomerate Pearson recently launched a partnership with build-a-social-network site Ning, sponsoring K-12 classrooms that want to create the most basic level of Ning network free of charge (per a recent change in Ning's business model, operating a social network is no longer free).

"Far and away the largest group of paying customers has been education (focused) Ning networks," Ning CEO Jason Rosenthal told CNET in an interview last week. "We're on the cusp of what I think is going to be a revolution in the whole way the Internet and technology is used in learning."

Early on in Ning's somewhat tumultuous history, co-founder and Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen was already highlighting its potential use as an educational tool.

But when it comes to adding some order to the chaos, comprehensive online research and learning hubs are tougher to get off the ground than one might think: assembling relevant and reputable information, infusing it all with social-media tools and accessible experts to use them alongside curious students, and now the added challenge of putting together the requisite mobile and iPad-optimized editions. "The main thing that we're working on is releasing a lot more new content," Vikram Savkar said of Scitable, which initially launched in 2009. "Last year we launched courseware in genetics, pretty comprehensive, and we're just shortly about to launch materials in cell biology and in ecology as well. So we're making great progress in covering the whole of the life sciences which is our goal for next year."

To use a bad pun, they've realized they have their homework cut out for them.

"On average, we update every article once every other month," Savkar said. "It's not so much that there's new research in that particular field but that somebody has made a point about something that he or she thinks we should mention."