Students using Wikipedia: OUTRAGEOUS …or maybe not?


We often hear educators telling students that Wikipedia is not an acceptable resource.  There is often no justification or rationale to support their claim.  We need to explore this issue more deeply.

Wikipedia claims that they are the #5 utilized URL on their homepage.  If  a resource is this widely used, it is our responsibility to really evaluate our response to a site that many of our students are already interacting with.  We need to decide, as educators, how we will guide our students to responsibly use the site.  Read on for some food for thought:

The Process:

The video linked below shares interesting information on just how content is added and maintained.

The Popularity:

Here is an interesting infographic which compares Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica.  There is much debate on whether Wikipedia was actually the death of Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Reliability:

Ironically, one of the most thorough resources on the reliability of Wikipedia can actually be found on a Wikipedia page.  It is not only comprehensive, but is corroborated with a wealth of outside sources.

How Educators use the Resource:

While many educators tell students not to use the resource, others allow and encourage students to use the resource.  Many ask that students read through an entry to use as a portal to locate additional sources using the References or External Links sections.  The sites they link to are ultimately the resource that they cite in their Works Cited (if researching.)

That’s about as comfortable as many educator’s get and it is pretty safe.

Where it gets unsafe is if you go beyond this suggestion…

An Intellectually Indecent Proposal?

What about students taking part as contributing members of our information society by contributing content to existing Wikipedia articles?  Is it a preposterous proposition?  Maybe or maybe not…  We have seen an evolution of librarian’s responses to Wikipedia (as evidenced by the article linked above under the heading “The Reliability”)  I anticipate we will also see an evolution with this concept and there are currently groups of educators on the higher education level who are exploring this concept.

In Best practices in assigning Wikipedia articles as coursework to students there are compelling arguments with regards to the benefit to students, the Wikipedia community, and instructors.

However, in another article the quality of contributions have become suspect when assigning students as seen in the section Concerns about this project.

The page School and University Projects offers additional guidelines to educators interested in contributing content.

The Curation Connection:

Curation has recently become quite popular in response to the need for individuals to harness vast offerings of information.  Through curation, individuals gather content  in order to collect it, organize it, and make sense of it.  For example, our students may be researching The Renaissance and seek out videos, images, links to articles, embed full text books, etc. in one place which serve to balance each other.  A Wikipedia article also has the opportunity to become more balanced as content evolves.

Students may be assigned the project of evaluating an existing Wikipedia page and encouraged to propose edits which add to or improve existing content.  After students research,  they are at an ideal point to compare and contrast the information that they have gathered with what is offered within the Wikipedia article.  They may notice that a large area of content is missing which can be enhanced by a resource which they have located.  The student then makes the edit and links to proper resource to improve the Wikipedia article.  Good content should be good content whether it is from a student who is sharing content from a legally linked resource that they have found or another person who does so.  The student is not the expert, but the student has provided a vehicle to the expert.  The question is, “Is there anything wrong with that?”   “Are important details being overlooked?” “In an ideal world, can and should this be done?”

I don’t think we are at the point where we can ask students to become valued contributors to content on Wikipedia , but I hope we are headed there.  It is food for thought.


6 thoughts on “Students using Wikipedia: OUTRAGEOUS …or maybe not?

  1. Alice says:

    I think that while Wikipedia is improving, it still has a long way to go. Many people are making the assumptioin that since the “sources” are listed at the bottom of the article, that the information in the article 1) was parsed correctly or that 2) is not from a source that used unsourced Wikipedia information as the source of its research. (If you look at a lot of the sources listed at the bottom of Wikipedia articles, you will notice that those sources list Wikipedia as one of their major sources.) Wikipedia needs editors who have legitimate background in the topics that the article is covering. Until that happens, peer reviewed will always outshine it. Granted, Wikipedia moves on the money generated by donors and this does limit the ability of the staff to check and challenge the material. But does that not also make it possible for the “wallets” do have an undue influence on the information presented in the articles? Quick and collaborative is only as good as the authority of the presenters. As I often tell my students, I could create a really nifty website about brain surgery, but what I actually know about brain surgery could be put in a thimble with room left over. When it comes to the quality of information, good enough really isn’t…..good enough.

  2. khornberger says:

    I totally agree with many of your thoughts. Peer reviewed resources, I agree, will always be superior. We need to stress that to students and also guide them in using those resources effectively. Much of my article is written from an idealistic perspective. Your response definitely puts practicality into the equation. That is why it is so important that we begin this conversation and deeply analyze the use of the resource while not throwing the “baby out with the bathwater”. This opportunity to teach collaborative content development is so promising along with discussing the realities of the issue and hopefully developing advocates for improvement!

  3. Heidi Schiavone says:

    For the elementary aged students (gr. 4-6) that I teach, I encourage the use of Wikipedia as a place to gather some background on a subject and to collect keywords and vocabulary/names/dates/places to utilize as they search for information elsewhere. My main concern is that the reading levels and depth of coverage of Wikipedia articles can vary widely. For many science and social studies projects, the information is far too complex to be useful to these kids. Of course, that can also be true of any webpage they turn up by other means. However, I tend to see kids who want to rely on Wikipedia because they are familiar with it or because it was at the top of the results for their search engine query regardless of how well they have understood what they read, whereas they will discard another website if they are having trouble understanding it.

  4. khornberger says:

    Hi, Heidi!
    I love how you are using it at the elementary level! My son is in 5th and I will start to show him those techniques!

  5. […] I created a publicly editable document (I LOVE LOVE LOVE that we have technology that helps us collaborate and share thoughts and knowledge) which asked people to discuss the pros and cons of genrefying the fiction section. […]

  6. Marvelous, what a website it is! This website gives helpful data to us,
    keep it up.

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