Wikipedia in the Classroom

I have designed and continue to teach online courses for teachers on technology integration in the classroom. More and more teachers are becoming tech-savvy, and I rarely hear, “What’s a blog?” anymore…though some will still admit to not knowing much about them. However, one of the biggest surprises to me is that most of the teachers I have in my courses do not know that Wikipedia is a resource which the online public has written collaboratively–that anyone can contribute to its pages. (After some recent vandalism, Wikipedia has protected certain entries, but that’s only a recent addition.) I certainly don’t expect teachers to be tech geniuses, but this disturbs me, only because students use Wikipedia so frequently.

I like Wikipedia and use it all the time. I find it generally to be very accurate and freakishly up-to-date. For example, when watching the Oscars last year, and Diablo Cody won the screenwriting award for Juno, I looked her up on Wikipedia, and found that it listed her win only a few minutes after it happened. (Who has this much time?!?!?) I’m still torn about using it in the classroom, but one thing I am sure of is that students and teachers be informed about the resources they are using, and allow their students to use.

Teachers often ask me if I think Wikipedia is appropriate for the classroom, and here’s how I stand. Yes, for background information and general guidance on a topic. For more serious research, I think encyclopedias, whether they be online, collaborative, in print, etc, shouldn’t be used as a primary resource…especially when the web is chock-full of primary resources.

One way I do like to see students use Wikipedia for is to find out some general info, and then use some of the citations to search for primary sources (some are linked). Some teachers like to tell students about Wikipedia, how it works, and then have them “test” the site to verify information. You frequently hear that Wikipedia has been proven to be more accurate than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. As the site has gained in popularity, it has been the target of “vandals” posting purposely inaccurate information. This usually gets corrected quickly, but it’s happening more frequently as well. (Most notably, the journalist John Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today describing how his bio on Wikipedia was altered to imply that he had a role in the Kennedy Assassination).

Wikipedia is clear about its strengths and weaknesses over more traditional sources of information. Newer material is more likely to be incomplete, the target of vandals, and therefore, contain inappropriate and incorrect information. Older articles contain more reliable and comprehensive material. For more guidelines on using Wikipedia with students, I’d suggest looking at their own article, Researching with Wikipedia.

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