May
18
2009

Teaching and Learning with Wikipedia

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Every once and awhile we hear a chorus of educational outrage over the idea of students using Wikipedia as a resource for their essays or projects in school.  Each time the kerfuffle flares up, I’m amazed all over again.  If I understand the parent and teacher concerns correctly, they are 1) that Wikipedia is not a primary source, 2) that it is not a reliable source (the information there is somehow suspect), and 3) that students will begin and end their research right there.

OK.  Let’s take those one at a time.  The first point is absolutely true.  Yup, Wikipedia is not a primary source.  But that’s alright, isn’t it?  Students have to start somewhere and it seems perfectly reasonable to start your quest with a secondary source that will give you the big picture in clear, easy to read prose.  Students can go from there to more specialized and (hopefully) primary sources (depending on the assignment).  In fact, most of Wikipedia’s 2,847,000 entries (in English, that is) have an impressive list of references and external links at the end.

The second concern, that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, is where I really have problems.  When you talk with people who get incensed about this, it usually becomes apparent that they haven’t spent much time on Wikipedia themselves.  The whole point and power of Wikipedia is that it’s self correcting – amazingly self correcting.  Every Wikipedia entry has a history tab (up at the top).  Try clicking that tab on a particularly meaty or controversial entry (like “Stem Cells” or  “Barack Obama”) and what you’ll find is a chronology of  corrections, insertions, deletions,  explanations, fixes, and debates. Experts, librarians, and amateurs are weighing in, discussing, challenging each other in order to get to the truth.  Some articles (stem cells, for instance) also have a discussion tab up at the top. This is an additional space set aside to document the ongoing collaboration to improve the article’s veracity. Seems to me that  these history and discussion pages could be a good classroom tool. Isn’t that what we’re trying to get our students to do?  To think critically about information, to question, to dig deep?  Wikipedia could be an object lesson in precisely the kind of thinking we want our students to be doing.

Consider an article that appeared in about 100 different newspapers, radio broadcasts, and on ABC news this last week:  Irish Student Hoaxes World’s Media with Fake Quote.  What happened is that Shane Fitzgerald, a University of Dublin student, inserted a made-up quote into the Maurice Jarre entry on Wikipedia, a few hours after the composer’s death on March 28th.  The made-up quote ended up in dozes of blogs, newspaper sites, and newspapers all over the world.  And here’s the interesting part.  The self-correcting Wikipedia community caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it promptly.  But the news media?  Not so much.  Finally Fitzgerald contacted several media outlets in an email and a slow process of corrections and retractions began.

The third objection – that students will begin and end their research with just Wikipedia – seems ground we’ve covered before. That’s a familiar teaching and learning challenge – not a weakness of Wikipedia.  That sort of reasoning is often applied to technology (you can think of it as making up a good-sounding reason to dismiss).  That is, people blame technology for a problem that is really a much larger, human problem. We ban cell phones from school because students will misuse them and get distracted in class.  We blame Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites for bullying attacks on vulnerable teens.  We blame Craig’s list for the violence perpetrated by Phillip Markoff.  We blame the internet for pornography. If teachers are worried about their students not citing sufficient sources in their research, shouldn’t we be addressing that problem? Teaching students the proper use of a secondary source, like Wikipedia, will help them to put it in the proper context and show them how to use it (and we know they are already using it anyway) more effectively.

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