Wikipedia in Education

Wikipedia Globe

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit has become a source of information for millions. The site has close to 2 million articles in English and, while less is offered, is also available in dozens of other languages. Many students at all levels, but especially in high school and college, may use the site for research. Is this a good idea? What do they need to know when evaluating the veracity of Wikipedia articles? How should the site be used responsibly? Should it be ignored altogether? Today’s post gives some suggestions on using the site, but also asks more questions.

First, let’s take a minute to look at what a Wiki is and the concept behind Wikipedia. The word, wiki, refers to the Hawaiian word for fast. Wikis are often used to give a group of users a method of fast collaboration when writing a document. Users can add content to pages, create links to other pages on the site, or to other sites without needing to know HTML or have any web design experience. There are many different wikis out there, but perhaps the most famous is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where the content is added, edited and maintained by users of the site. TeacherJay has been using the site for over three years now and was a bit skeptical at first, as he is sure many of you are, that information would not be accurate and therefore useless. TeacherJay had assumed that the site would never work because people would put up phony information – he was ignoring two crucial elements of the site’s success however: 1) for the most part, anyone can edit any post at any time – while this may seem to be a flaw because credentials are not checked, it does also mean that erroneous information can be changed as well and is usually done so very quickly; 2) the GEEK factor – many people get addicted to the anonymous fame of editing information and making the posts better. However, that’s not to say that Wikipedia is without its problems.

Last week, Will Richardson over at Weblogg-ed, published an entry on “a Wikipedia Moment”. He went to the entry on Ronald McDonald, the advertising icon for the popular fast food chain, and found the picture changed to one of Hitler and a string of other inaccurate comments. Another example centered around a user who called himself EssJay (no relation to TeacherJay, honestly), and claimed to be a tenured professor of religion when it was actually discovered that the 24-year old Kentuckian, Ryan Jordan, had no such credentials. When the truth came out, it was referred to in the media as a “scandal”; material was removed and Jordan asked to leave the site.

These examples illustrate two of the major concerns that educators have about Wikipedia: 1) students will be asked to look up an entry and then confronted with inappropriate materials; 2) even if content is not inappropriate it may not be correct.

Well, Richardson’s example showed another important aspect of the site. A team of devoted Wikipedians has taken the responsibility of keeping the pages appropriate. Before Richardson could make the changes himself, seomone else had already done so. It is true that some pages are occasionally vandalized, but the Wikipedia staff and the community of self-appointed editors keep an eye on this. When a page receives too many edits in a set amount of time, the webmasters lock it for editing to prevent tampering. In fact, when such events as Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest hit the media, the site has been known to preemptively lock entries.

Another common complaint of Wikipedia is the bias that may be perceived in the writing of some articles. TeacherJay has not found this to be a widespread problem. Occasionally articles will include a banner above them to tell the reader that sources are unverified, or that a bias has been perceived in the article – this leaves the analysis of the reliability of the information to the reader’s discretion.

As promised, here are a few guidelines for responsible use of Wikipedia:

  • Train students to consider the source of the information – even printed materials may not have accurate information or contain bias depending on who wrote the material; introduce students to this topic using a variety of media.
  • The site is perhaps best used as a reference to gain more information on a topic, and even a place to look for additional sources, but is probably not a wise choice to use as a single source of information.
  • Teachers should always look at a webpage before asking students to view it to make sure that the content is appropriate.
  • Wikipedia, like any website, is full of information and it can be easy for students (and teachers) to get off-topic. Monitor students’ use in class and keep them focused.

A few reasons to use Wikipedia:

  • The way that Wikipedia pages contain links to related content, may be helpful for students to make connections and learn about new topics.
  • Wikipedia may serve to enhance your students’ access to encyclopedias and help to bridge the “digital divide” – especially with students who may have internet access, but don’t have access to traditional encyclopedias.
  • Because Wikipedia (and the other WikiMedia projects) are available in other languages this may be a way for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to encyclopedias to read information in their native language and probably understand it better than in English.
  • Students can see that they have the power and the ability to contribute to articles and add to content, provided they do it responsibly.

TeacherJay also has a few questions for his readers:

  • How have you seen Wikipedia used as a study aide?, teaching tool?, or in another way?
  • Do you trust the information on Wikipedia?
  • What cautions do you have for teachers and educators on its use?
  • Give an example of a positive (or negative) story related to its use.
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