I do believe that the term “reference material” is in need of revision to update it as encompassing new materials available, both print and digital. The use of books such as encyclopaedias should not be discounted as outdated compared to online sites containing factual information. However the use of print based reference materials can be used to provide information, to use as a cross-reference tool alongside digital materials to ensure authenticity and reliability of information published by unknown sources, to enhance and complement information found from digital sources.
Perhaps reference material as a term can be revised to include print and non-print resources that aim to provide comprehensive information in a variety of formats that cater to individuals’ needs. Different students are afforded different degrees of access to resources, particularly outside of the school environment. Not all students will have access to a computer, to the internet, to software, to factual books or reference materials. They may, however have access to one of these forms of reference material and therefore should value it as useful.
Should we use Wikipedia?
I think that TLs could consider using Wikipedia as an example of an online encyclopaedia that has its merits and has its faults. Students could be encouraged to choose a topic that have studied, or know certain facts about and go to Wikipedia and check the reliability of its presentation of these facts. Students could then go further and find other reference tools that are authentic to cross reference this material against Wikipedia and identify the strengths of the site and the weaknesses. Perhaps the site may report new information that other reference tools have not. Have a class discussion about how students can test the credibility of information presented by this site and others. It certainly would make for some interesting research if students exploring a topic of their choice and one they knew about well.
Online or traditional dictionary use?
Yes students would benefit from gaining skills by using both print and digital dictionaries as each presents its own skills, uses advantages and disadvantages. Students, who do not have access to the internet, however have a dictionary can still complete tasks requiring dictionaries. Students who do have access can still benefit from learning how to thumb through a dictionary and learn the mechanics of alphabetical order, skimming and scanning for letters and locating desired words. These skills are valuable in other areas of their learning and will not be learnt by allowing a digital dictionary to do all of the above for students.