18 January 2012

The Demonization of Wikipedia

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="269" caption="Wikipedia isn't quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be."][/caption]

No doubt you have been on Wikipedia or at least seen it at the top of your search results. As a teacher, I did not allow students to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but I did encourage them to use the site. There are many uses and contrary to what most teachers say, it does not need to be avoided. Wikipedia has been demonized in education. Whether or not that has a good reason is open for debate, but the mindset needs to be changed.

Two years ago, I spent about six weeks working with a couple of physics researchers at Oklahoma State. When Dr. Rizatdinova wanted me to learn something, she always pulled up Wikipedia first. Was this ignorance? Or does she recognize that Wikipedia is, on average, more accurate than print sources? I suspect it is the latter. She has a PhD in High Energy Physics from Moscow University, so I can only imagine she has a pretty clear understanding of how to find correct information on the internet.

Back in 2009, I had a realization: Putnam City High School did not have a Wikipedia page. I thought to myself, "How can this be?" At that point, I realized I had two choices, I could continue to be a consumer of knowledge (and allow my students to do so) or I could model for my students what being a producer of knowledge looks like. I chose the latter. I did a minimal amount of research about the history of Putnam City High School and started a Wikipedia page. This was one of only two edits I made to the page. I only mention that because it has some (not a lot) of information on it, most of which was put there by others. There are actually people who enjoy building pages and some of them found our page! My second edit was to correct the mascot. I could have noticed the error and pointed it out to others, further casting the site in a bad light. However, I decided it would be better to make the page better.

A couple of weeks after I created the page, I went back to the page and there was a note at the top saying, "This page does not meet Wikipedia's quality standards, you can help by adding citations and information." What? They have "quality standards"? They actually want you to add citations? To show where your information comes from? That sounds a lot like the kind of thing we teach students when writing papers. I suspect Wikipedia could be used as a tool to teach writing, instead of being talked about like the plague.

Over the last two weeks, I have talked (probably too much) about Wikipedia over the course of some professional development I have done about technology. One was at Deer Creek Schools and the other at Yukon Public Schools. I spent some time talking about how students should no longer look at the web as a place to simply get information. They should also look at it as a place to construct their own knowledge base and add to the overall knowledge about a topic. This is (at least part of) the purpose of Wikipedia.

Oklahoma recently adopted the English/Language Arts and Mathematics Common Core State Standards. These standards mandate that students should "Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate..." Wikipedia would be a fantastic place to do that. By the way, this was cut and pasted from the grade 3-5 standards.

Imagine starting a Wikipedia page for your school (neither Yukon nor Deer Creek have pages for any of their schools at the time of this writing). You could have students develop interview questions, contact members of the community, video the interviews, post them to the school district's webpage, and then link to the video interviews as primary sources for your Wikipedia article(s). Would students think differently about their writing if they had that kind of ownership? Would they write differently with that kind of audience?

I recognize that Wikipedia can be used incorrectly. As teachers, should we continue letting students use it incorrectly? Or should we be proactive in our approach? I hope you will reconsider how you present Wikipedia to your students. Like most things on the web, it can be used to learn something.

I challenged the teachers from both Yukon and Deer Creed to build Wikipedia pages for their schools. I'll be interested to see if they pick up the gauntlet. What about you? Does your district have a page? Does your school? Is there some other way to integrate Wikipedia into your teaching? I would love to hear your ideas.

**I posted this today because Wikipedia is blacked out to protest the US Government's efforts to censor information on the internet through SOPA and PIPA. Both of these bills (like most) have a good intent. The controversy comes in from the way in which they are doing the "policing".**

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