Wikipedia in the Classroom: Consensus Among Educators?
Last summer, after writing about the role of Wikipedia in education on my personal blog, I got an email from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who disagreed with me when I suggested that many educators were hostile to the online encyclopedia. His personal experience, he said, suggested quite the opposite. So I asked him if we could take the question public and see what educators had to say about the issue. Jimbo agreed, so I raised the question on my blog and various email discussion lists. While I followed many of the online responses, I never got a chance at examining them as a whole. So I thought I’d take a moment and pull together some of the most interesting responses. Not surprisingly, opinions were all over the map.
As I somewhat expected, there wasn’t exactly consensus among those who responded. Many educators saw value in Wikipedia, particularly as a tool for teaching information literacy, while at the same time exhibiting skepticism about it.
Blogger John Pederson had this to say on the subject:
Wikipedia is far from perfect. So is Encarta 2000. Instead of protecting students and teachers from what might be wrong information, let’s assume that Wikipedia is a bit sketchy and work from there. It can’t be much worse that Encarta 2000’s entry on September 11, 2001. Or Hurricane Katrina. Seriously. At a certain level I’m ready to say that it’s our responsibility in K12 education to a) fact check and b) correct some of this information.
Tom Hoffman responded by defending Wikipedia, particularly in the context of using it as part of a student’s preliminary research on a topic:
What sometimes gets lost in this argument is that the end product of every act of research is not a footnote in a formal research paper. I use Wikipedia all the time as a quick way to get a first pass on a subject I’m not familiar with, and I don’t see any reason why students shouldn’t be taught to use it the same way. Should it end up in the footnotes of your honors thesis? Probably not, but there is a whole world of usefulness short of that point.
Bob Eiffert, like many others, felt that Wikipedia’s value wasn’t simply a yes or no question, but he leaned more towards the skeptic’s camp:
Wikipedia is too large to really cover with a blanket Yea or Nay; though its problems make it difficult to say Yea unequivocally. And just as I don’t say ‘look in the encyclopedia’ as a blanket response for information, I can’t say ‘don’t use Wikipedia’, nor can I state I’d never link to an article in a resource guide. But, as a part of showing what resources are available and teaching effective search skills, Wikipedia tends to present more problems than many other resources. Sometimes because of range of quality of editors, sometimes because of interest level in updating and correcting (both over and under). It would be just as naive to launch Wikipedia as the always first choice as it would be to launch Google, Yahoo, eLibrary, or Grolier or to point to a pathfinder or resource guide everytime. Given choice of topic, situation, sophistication and skills of user, information need, end product, there is always going to be a range of resources available to choose from.
Librarian Janet Johns, chiming in on my blog, discouraged student use of the encyclopedia:
I do not allow students to use Wikipedia as a source. Since it can be edited by anyone, one cannot verify if the information is correct. Students could use it to learn a starting point for research much as they can use google and its results list, but not as a referenced site. I won’t call this hostile, but instead cautious.
Kathy Bowman then offered a skeptic’s perspective:
I would not say I am hostile. I would say I am skeptical. Since it is part of my job to teach students to evaluate what they learn on the Internet, at best the Wikipedia might be used to add additional information to an already-established source. I would never counsel a student to rely only on information obtained in Wikipedia.
David Warlick picked up on this thread.
I demonstrate the Wikipedia pretty regularly in my presentations and workshops. I know that my observations are skewed, because the people who attend these events are already open to new ways of looking at technology and information. But I suspect that there is hostility out there.
I approach Wikipedia with much the same vane as your first commentor, with skepticism — though that’s not really the right word. But I would turn around, what that commentor said, and have my students start with Wikipedia. I would ask them to look up some topic, and then I would have them go out and prove that what was in the article is true. I don’t think we need to teach students to be skeptical, but careful readers, that part of reading is the skill involved in proving that the information is true.To the crux of your question, being the knowledge gatekeeper is key to how many educators and librarians define their jobs. And we they are asked to pass on this responsibility to their learners, it’s forcing them to redefine their role. That’s not easy.
Some of the best responses I received came from members of the EDTECH and LM_NET lists, which cater to large numbers of educators, librarians and media specialists. Michael Goldberg offered a university-level perspective on the EDTECH list:
I’ve been surprised at some of the responses to this question, since they suggest a somewhat muddy notion about “reliable” sources. Recently, on another list, the topic of Wikipedia came up and a number of instructors all said they used it for background lecture material. For my undergraduate students, Wikipedia is a good source as a beginning for doing research on a topic. But like any encyclopedia, it is just a starting point, and should NEVER be cited—certainly not by graduate students! Isn’t that the type of thing we learned in high school? The advantage to Wikipedia is that it is very current, and has such a broad feedback mechanism. Even online encyclopedias like Encarta can get out of date fast, and only have a limited number of editors to check facts, interpretations, etc. On the minus side, the quality is more uneven than Encarta, etc. Shouldn’t the question be, when is Wikipedia (or any source) useful? When is it appropriate? The context should determine the answer to both of those questions.
Another participant from higher education, Professor Tracey Trenam, worried that information from Wikipedia, both accurate an inaccurate, gets propagated to other websites, potentially spreading certain inaccuracies to other reference sources:
I do use Wikipedia with my students, for one simple exercise — google any discrete phrase from any article on history. That phrase will invariably turn up in at least two different places. This demonstrates to students that Wikipedia is widely copied but not usually referenced, and that much of what is in Wikipedia was in turn copied from other sources (notably, Encarta, where a google search very often finds similar phrases). My students then compare the content of the Wikipedia article to that of Britannica. This is a very useful exercise in the reliability and ubiquity of the same information on the Internet, and makes quite plain the contrast between Wikipedia’s content and that of a more conventionally edited source.
Gary Ankney then lamented that many critics of Wikipedia don’t even bother trying using the site before warning others about it:
Last year the faculty got an “urgent” email from our school librarian warning of us of the dangers of Wikipedia. Curious, I asked what her objections were. She had never seen Wikipedia, but had read an entry on the SCHOOLS@hslc.org listserv, to wit: Wikipedia articles do not have proper credentials and are therefore not to be trusted. I asked another librarian colleague, she, too had seen the entry on SCHOOLS@hslc.org and was left with the impression that Wikipedia was a site to be avoided. I asked around: most colleagues had never seen Wikipedia, never intended to go there, and some had already warned their students that they were not to use Wikipedia for class projects, purely on the advice of the first librarian’s email.
On the LM_NET list, Jim Fergus praised Wikipedia’s ability to capture the debates over how an encyclopedia entry is written:
One element of the Wikipedia is the discussion that individuals have who disagree on what should be in the individual posting. This kind of open discussion can be found in many areas that are appropriate for different grade levels and could be a great way for students to see that no matter what encyclopedia one uses TRUTH is evasive and agreement not always easily done.
Brent Bradley offered a similar perspective, emphasizing Wikipedia’s archiving of every edit made to an entry:
It seems to me that Wikipedia is not only a potentially great resource (if its contents are verifiable with another more trustworthy source) of fact, but also a great resource of education regarding teaching someone to “tell the difference”. We say this is a tough thing to do, but I think we have great examples right in front of us. I very much like that Wikipedia keeps old versions of the pages, so students could examine what has changed and debate why something was removed / added, and whether the information is true now, was then, whatever…
Shonda Brisco meanwhile, lamented a culture of apathy toward information literacy - an apathy that she believes is getting worse.
Overall, I don’t think this is really a matter of discussion for most. I do believe that we, as educators, will work around Wikipedia and share what we know about reliable information so that our students can learn how to find the best information—-but that takes work and time….and for most, this is not something that they want to devote their energies to. For those who are in education but who are NOT educated about the strategies used (mostly by librarians) to determine between good and bad information, there will be a general apathy toward the approach to evaluating online formats to determine credibility, again because of the time and effort involved in locating GOOD information (or in reality, “the truth”). As more and more younger educators come into the field, I believe we will see a general embrace of informational technology without any questioning of source or credibility.
Back on the EDTECH discussion list,Sharon Krossa had decidedly mixed feelings:
From high school level on up, about the only way an Wikipedia (or any general encyclopedia) should be used as a source of information is, with great caution, as one place to look for further hints on what might (or might not) be relevant to a topic — but if the hints lead to useable sources, it is those works found through further research that should be cited in the resulting paper, not the Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedia. (And whether Wikipedia specifically is appropriate at the high school level for this purpose will depend greatly on the discernment/gullibility level of the particular students involved — it isn’t something I would indiscriminantly recommend at that level.) However, not as a source of information, but for writing and sharing information, I can imagine that contributing to Wikipedia could be made into an educationally sound student/class project, at least at the high school level. (Such a project would need to be carefully considered and designed, but I can imagine some teachers doing a very good job with it.)
Sharon’s final point is one that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last year, ever since I wrote a blog entry about turning Wikipedia into an asset for schools, which actually started this whole discussion between Wikipedia’s founder and me. I explored the possibility of having teachers assigning teams of students to tackle a particular Wikipedia entry and dissect it. Does the entry cite any sources? If so, are they primary sources, secondary sources, other reference materials, blogs, etc? Students would then conduct their own research into the topic, meticulously examining multiple sources in order to reach a consensus. Quoting from my original post:
Once the Wikipedia entry has been fact-checked, the teacher creates a Wikipedia login for the class. They go to the entry’s talk page and present their findings, laying out every idea that needs to be corrected. Then, they edit the actual entry to make the corrections, with all sources cited. Similarly, for all the parts of the entry they’ve verified as accurate, they list sources confirming it. That way, each idea presented in the Wikipedia entry has been verified and referenced - hopefully with multiple sources. Get enough classrooms doing this, you kill several birds with one stone: Wikipedia’s information gets better, students help give back to the Net by improving the accuracy of an important online resource, and teachers have a way to make lemons into lemonade, turning Wikipedia from a questionable information source to a powerful tool for information literacy.
I stumbled across my small town’s Wikipedia page a few weeks ago, and there was just sketchy information about our town. I decided at that time to have one of my classes (fifth graders, probably) fill in more information. I plan to have them come up with a list of things to add, like attractions, schools, town history, etc.
We haven’t started the project yet, but I believe that this will be a valuable lesson for them. They’ll learn that they can contribute, that they have to research and plan when putting information online, and that since everyone can do it, they should be careful of what they post and what they read on Wikipedia.I believe it can be a valuable resource, when combined with other sources. I don’t think any of us EVER just use one source when we’re doing research, not even at the elementary school level.
More and more educators are beginning to explore projects like this as well. It may be just a matter of time before we see highly organized educational activities, with teams of students from around the world working together to improve the quality of content on Wikipedia. In the meantime, though, it’s clear that there’s no singular conventional wisdom among educators on Wikipedia. One teacher’s pet project is another teacher’s biggest headache. Is one more “right” than the other? I remain an optimist. But it may be a while before a majority of educators embrace Wikipedia as a classroom tool, whether for reference, information literacy, or galvanizing students to conduct their own research. -andy
Filed under : Wikis