on Wikipedia

My students love Wikipedia. Many of my colleagues hate it, and often turn to me to convince their students that Wikipedia is a no-good very bad unreliable source.

Alas, I cannot.

love Wikipedia, and it is a super powerful tool for research when used responsibly. Of course it’s easy to just tell kids not to use it, and it takes a lot of work to teach them how to use it right – but as far as I’m concerned, that effort is well worth it. Let’s face it, our students are going to use Wikipedia no matter what we tell them.

So this is what we say about Wikipedia in my library:

Pros

  • Wikipedia is a great place to build schema. Sometimes you just need to know when David Bowie was born, or when the Spanish-American War happened. Wikipedia is awesome at answering those basic questions. The first few paragraphs of an article, in particular, often give a nice overview of a topic. This paragraph may also give you synonyms that can help improve your keyword searches in databases.
  • Wikipedia is a great way to find other sources. We spend a lot of time talking about the References at the bottom of every good Wikipedia page. For most facts on a Wikipedia page, there’s a little number in superscript that will take you to the citation for that piece of information. So while we can’t cite a Wikipedia page in our papers, we can follow the trail back to the original source. We’ll still need to evaluate that source, as always, but it’s still better than random Googling. You can also use a Wikipedia article to get the names of researchers or writers who are experts on your topic.
  • Students can compare and contrast a Wikipedia article with an article from Britannica or World Book. Especially when our students do argumentative writing, this can be really interesting. What perspectives on controversial topics are represented in each source? Do any of the sources seem to promote a particular viewpoint?

Cons

  • Wikipedia is often way too challenging for us. Many articles, especially in the sciences, are written with an audience of professionals in mind. They’re not really written for middle- and high-school students. While Simple English Wikipedia can sometimes be helpful, it doesn’t have nearly as many articles as English Wikipedia, and the existing articles contain a lot less information.
  • You can’t cite Wikipedia. What I tell my students is this: past about fifth or sixth grade, you really shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias at all. Encyclopedia articles – whether from Britannica or Wikipedia – are good for building background knowledge, checking up on quick facts, and getting an overview of a topic. They’re not intended for serious research. But, as mentioned above, they can lead you to better, more in-depth sources.

“Wait, Ms. C.,” you might say. “You missed the most important thing!!!! ANYBODY can edit a Wikipedia page!”

OK, true. Despite that, Wikipedia is pretty accurate (though possibly more politically biased and prone to factual errors stemming from site policy), and if you’re teaching students to triangulate, they should be able to spot sketchy edits.

I also think this is a great opportunity for discussion! That’s the line they’ve heard throughout their time in school: “Anybody can edit it, so it’s bad.” I invite students to question that assumption. What’s the potential value in allowing anyone to edit Wikipedia? What are the pros and cons of that approach versus a book or encyclopedia article by a single author? Who does edit Wikipedia? Are there articles where we’d be qualified to contribute, and what value might our perspective add to the conversation that’s happening on the article? You can explore the History and Talk pages as part of this discussion, so students can see that (especially on popular pages), changes tend to involve a lot of thinking and conversation among editors.

Look, my dudes. No one is saying that Wikipedia is perfect. Clearly it is not. But it can be a useful tool, and our students are going to use it no matter what we tell them, so we should take this opportunity to make the best of it.

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