Wikipedia-Wicked or Wonderful?

Jeff Utecht speaking about the we-Generation.

Professional Development can be the most maddening hours you spend as a teacher or it can lift you to new heights, make your head explode, and completely change the way you think about your classroom.

This week I was exposed to the head exploding/change the way you think about your classroom type of PD. I learned new ways to teach Google search skills to my students, added helpful apps to my Chrome browser, and created an online textbook for my students to use and add to right away.

The biggest mind shift though came from a discussion I had with Jeff Utecht about Wikipedia. For a long time I have been torn about this resource. It is the largest encyclopedia in the world. It is written in all the languages that my students speak. It has pictures and excellent maps they can legally use in their projects and presentations. It is sometimes the only article they read that makes clear sense to them.

But Wikipedia is bad, right? Any crazy person can edit it, right? Kids should never EVER use it, right?

Well maybe Wikipedia isn’t so bad after all. Amy Antonio, from the Australian Digital Futures Institute, in her article “Is Wikipedia Really Such a Bad Research Tool for Students?” states,

“The crowd-sourcing review practices of Wikipedia, though criticized for favoring rapid turnaround over reliability, are forcing educators to reconsider the value and credibility of digital resources, or at least to rethink their attitude towards them. As scandalous as it might sound to old-school academics, Wikipedia is arguably subject to more rigorous review practices than are many scholarly publications.”

Have you ever taken a look at Wikipedia’s review practices? Of course not!  Few teachers have the time to really dig into what it is that Wikipedia actually does to review an article, but maybe that is exactly what we should be doing.  And we should also be introducing our students to these practices as well.

We teachers have rubrics we use to grade our students’ work. We have strict guidelines for content, layout, and for how we want our students to cite their information.  Wouldn’t it be great to show our students that, in the real world, real people use the same types of rubrics and guidelines to create the online resources they use everyday?

Wikipedia's Quality Scale

Wikipedia’s Quality Scale

Wikipedia has a rubric for how it rates its articles.  If you know where to click, Wikipedia shows what grade each article received as well as what that grade means.  If the article received a lower grade, Wikipedia also shows exactly what must be revised to make that article score higher on the rubric in the future.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 16.42.13

Clicking on the “Talk” tab will show you the rating and discussion of the quality of the article.

This is amazing right?  So right now, go search for something on Wikipedia. Yes, right now.  Once on the article, you will see two tabs in the top left corner near the Wikipedia logo.  One will say “article” and one will say “talk”. Click on the “talk” tab. Voila, there is the grade the article received.  What kind of article did you choose?  Was it considered A-Class?  Or was it an article that is still a work in progress?

Isn’t this exactly the kind of stuff we want our students to do?  We want them to be able to evaluate sources.  We want them to be able to judge what is good and what is not so good.  And isn’t it amazing that they can see first hand why a group of experts and editors deemed an article OK, and where they feel the  article needs work.Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 16.48.46

And if the kids find an article that is a “stub” or a “start”, wouldn’t it be cool if your students actually tried to make the article better?  We want kids to write an essay on this or that, but what if that essay was out there on the web for all to peer review?  What if your students were creating real content for others to use?

This is exactly what some universities are beginning to do.  Howard University, in collaboration with NPR and the Schomburg Center, is seeking to increase the amount of “stories of color” on Wikipedia.  At Pomona College, some professors are actually having their students submit reports to Wikipedia as articles rather than collecting the reports directly. How empowering is that?  The research report is no longer a conversation between the student and the teacher, the research report is a conversation between the student and the world.

My 6th graders probably couldn’t write a very in-depth resource about a topic, but maybe I’m underestimating them.

Do you allow your students to use Wikipedia during the research process?  Is Wikipedia your first stop when trying to find information on a topic?

9 replies

  1. There once was a study which compared one of the biggest German encyclopaedia (I think it was the Brockhaus) with Wikipedia. The result was that there were less mistakes in Wikipedia.
    I think one has to realize that even experts are not always right, and the more people look over an article, the more likely it is that the mistakes are found. Also, Wikipedia has the sources directly under the article (usually more than the common encyclopaedia uses), so I always considered a good way to find books about a certain theme.

    • A friend who had worked at the NY Times and published a few books said to me once that more and more publishers are not fact checking as deeply as they should. I think Wikipedia has a deep review process, but kids need to know to look at what the quality of the article is before they use it.

  2. I’ve written several research papers and love Wikipedia. However, because most University professors and academics find it lazy to cite, Wikipedia as a source, I’ve always read the Wikipedia then tried to use the sources named in the Wikipedia article for citing purposes 😉 Most Wikipedia articles explain scientific concepts, way better than most Uni professors would.

    • Mkenya, I think academics also are frustrated that this information is being disseminated for free. Academics depend on funding for research, income from scholarly articles, and publishing. If people are giving the information away for free, it hurts them. However it works both ways. They might get exposure when wikipedians cite them in their articles.

      • Just a few points from someone who has worked in academia for 20+ years (research faculty at a US university in the sciences): I have never heard of any scientist complain that the information is being disseminated for free. The only real complaints have been that students may rely exclusively on Wikipedia as a source and that they do not track down alternative sources or even the sources found in many of the Wikipedia articles. Also, we do not get any money for writing scholarly articles as you mention. *We* pay the publishers to get the papers published for all peer reviewed journal articles.

      • Richard, I was speaking of scholarly books that you would write on your subject, not of articles in publications. As a teacher, my frustration has been with students doing exactly what Mkenya says she has done. When they cite a source they haven’t read that they find in Wikipedia, they are not really going to the that source. It is like they are quoting from an annotated bibliography, someone else’s summary of the text. What I think is important is that my students learn that Wikipedia has its place, and that some articles in Wikipedia are scholarly enough to use in a citation. Should their Extended Essays for the IB Diploma quote Wikipedia…absolutely not. But Wikipedia might be the place they find some great resources on the subject.

  3. I used to be solidly in the “Wicked Wikipedia” camp, but have gradually been shifting my focus. I’ve pointed out the many resources Wikipedia has such as the free-use maps and pictures, not to mention a helpful list of source material. I’m not quite *there* with allowing students to actually cite Wikipedia (although I know they all use it!), but perhaps that may change in the future.

    • I would allow my 6th graders to cite it, I would allow my 9’s to cite it if it was a good to Featured Article, and my Diploma students could use it in the beginning of the research process, but then I would expect them to read the sources of the wikipedia article.

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