Wikipedia in the classroom

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Like it or not, Wikipedia is here to stay. Dr Nicola Davies explores current Wikipedia trends and advises how teachers can make Wikipedia work for them without the risk of students becoming reliant on it.

Whether researching the works of Shakespeare, pathogenic micro-organisms, or the Seven Years’ War, most search engines will lead teachers and students straight to Wikipedia.

Despite debate over the reliability of Wikipedia information, the free online encyclopaedia is here to stay – for that reason alone, teachers need to educate students on how best to use the resource. 

What exactly is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia was set up in January 2001 as a free, online, user-managed encyclopaedia. It has since spread into other areas of information hosting and providing, but the encyclopaedia remains its mainstay. 

It is currently the fifth most popular website in the world, with a volume no printed book can match. As of September, it was home to almost 33 million articles, of which almost five million are in English; the rest are divided across 277 other languages. Many would argue that while Wikipedia is a remarkable achievement in terms of community teamwork, its reliability is questionable. Even the Wikipedia website states: “Nothing is perfect, and Wikipedia is no exception.”

Indeed, Wikipedia is community-managed, meaning that members write and edit all of the articles. The writers tend to be anonymous, which removes the reassuring expert authority that people can gain from other online information resources.

There are several other reasons why Wikipedia is viewed as a flawed model for publishing factual information, which is why many educators believe there should be some impetus for improvement of the website. There are many students who use Wikipedia and believe that information provided in the articles is trustworthy. However, Wikipedia’s stance as an encyclopaedia actually discourages this misguided belief and its users have even published an article stating that it is not a reliable source; it is a tertiary source like any other encyclopaedia.

Is it reliable?

Its reliability is in doubt because Wikipedia administrators and members of authority have no way of recognising expert knowledge over lay knowledge from information that is published by various and often anonymous authors.

There is the belief that a lot of information published on Wikipedia is a combination of Google results and opinion. In addition, since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, users can falsify entries and/or vandalise the website. Wikipedia has found a solution to this problem, however, and once vandalism is identified, the entry is locked so that it can no longer be tampered with. 

The creator and founder of the website, Jimmy Wales, has reassured that vandalism isn’t that common and false information and errors are corrected within a matter of hours or less after publication.

That anyone can edit Wikipedia articles does not necessarily mean the information is completely unreliable. Indeed, WikiAuthors and Editors are required to support their information with references. 

Furthermore, there have been various studies concluding that the bulk of articles found on Wikipedia are similar in accuracy to those found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are individuals in the Wikipedia community who are dedicated to questioning every edit or change in an article for authenticity and bias.

To embrace Wikipedia or not?

Since Wikipedia is fast becoming a resource that students and teachers can’t avoid when researching on the internet, some educators have decided to use the encyclopaedia rather than avoid it. 

Ross Morrison McGill, the most followed teacher on Twitter in the UK, encourages his students to read Wikipedia articles for particular subjects, such as geography or space innovation, when completing course assignments. Mr McGill, the deputy headteacher of a large inner London comprehensive school, said: “I use Wikipedia for definitions, crowdsourcing information and for finding some quick facts about specific conversations in class. However, I will talk to students about the reliability and validity of the information.” 

Stephen Lockyer, deputy head of The Mead School in Tunbridge Wells, who teaches ICT, also admits to integrating Wikipedia into his teaching: “I use it in several ways. We use it for research purposes in general lessons, and I teach the children to use the citations to check for accuracy where possible. 

“The provenance of Wikipedia is improving all the time, and we carry out one activity where we check the BBC news and see if Wikipedia has updated to reflect the news. We then discuss how a published book couldn’t possibly compete with the speed of this update.”

Other teachers aren’t so keen to jump on the Wiki bandwagon and encourage students to use other sources of information for researching and referencing. 

“I typically don’t allow my students to use Wikipedia as a reference for papers and other writing assignments,” explained Marisa Bloomington, a Kent-based secondary school teacher of 12 years. 

“I discourage them from using the site for researching because the information on Wikipedia is often messy and a bit unreliable. Students are going to need to reference the external sources for information found on Wikipedia articles anyway, so why not just cut out the middleman and go directly to the source itself? In other words, I encourage my students to find direct and more reliable sources of information than Wikipedia.”

Ms Bloomington does recognise, however, that students will come across Wikipedia and therefore educates them on when the resource is sufficient. 

She continued: “I tell my students that using Wikipedia as a way to gain a basic understanding about something is actually okay as long as they aren’t using it as a reference and as a main source of information during their research.”

The debate continues

The debate about using Wikipedia in education has been evolving alongside the encyclopaedia itself. Where 10 years ago it was almost unheard of for teachers to mention Wikipedia in a positive context, the efforts of those who work on the encyclopaedia has resulted in better and expanded services. 

This, in turn, has attracted many proponents of its use in classrooms. Indeed, a rather new approach to the use of Wikipedia in academic circles is to embrace the website as a platform for student assignments via the Wikipedia Education Programme.

The Wikimedia Foundation (a non-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging the growth of Wikipedia) launched the programme in 2010 with the aim of encouraging contributions from the academic community. 

It allows teachers and students worldwide to contribute to Wikipedia projects in an academic setting. These contributions are made by educators assigning Wikipedia editing tasks to students as coursework assignments. There is a one-hour student training session that covers the basic rules of Wikipedia, along with the mechanics of basic editing with Wikitext. 

Teachers can also provide simple exercises to help students become familiar with writing assignments on the website – including creating user-name and password, performing basic editing tasks, sourcing assessment, and copywriting.

Conclusion

Wikipedia is no longer just a household name, it has made its way into the education system. With that being said, teachers should educate students that while there is nothing harmful about using Wikipedia to gain basic knowledge of topics, caution is needed when using the encyclopaedia for research and essays. Students need to ensure all information is verified, a task that in itself can enhance critical-thinking skills.

  • Dr Nicola Davies is a consultant psychologist and freelance writer.

Further information
The Wikipedia Education Programme: http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Education


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