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Is There a Role For Wikipedia in the Classroom?


The operators of the popular online encyclopedia hit the road to discuss the challenges education sees with this resource.

Guest Post by Joseph Levis, Reference and Instruction Librarian at The College of Westchester.

Wikipedia poses a challenge to librarians and educators because it is a double edged sword.  On one hand, the fact that anyone can create entries means that you can discover a wide range of information through the site.  On the other, the fact that anyone can edit entries – while remaining anonymous – seriously calls into question the accuracy of the information (although it is important to keep in mind that all edits go through an approval process).  As the site gets bigger and is used by more students (one study suggested over three-quarters of students use it already) its organizers are considering strategies to improve its trustworthiness as an internet resource.

On October 7th, I attended an event in New Jersey entitled Edit: How Wikipedia Changes the Way We Debate, Govern, and Teach.  The presenters were from the Wikimedia Foundation, the charitable organization that operates Wikipedia, and whose mission is to develop wiki-based resources that will be available to the public free of charge.  The following concepts were discussed regarding how Wikipedia is used as a learning tool.

  1. Wikipedia as a “First Responder”.  Users who attempt to find information on Wikipedia might possibly be directed to where else to find it.  In that sense it is similar to a public library reference desk.  While the number of errors on Wikipedia is similar to that of reference sources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the scope and scale of those resources differ, so it is tricky to get a clear read of how accurate Wikipedia actually is. 
  2. Assignments in the Classroom.  If students create and edit Wikipedia entries as part of a classroom assignment, it moves the information from a two-way exchange between teacher and student, and into the world at large.  This would have significant effects on the way the site is used.  The Wikimedia Foundation offers support in the form of instructional videos, sample lesson plans, and campus ambassadors.
  3. Possible Future.  With traditional news media in crisis, it might fall upon academic institutions – using tools such as Wikipedia – to be the distributors of accurate information regarding news and current events.  In this regard, the academic community would no longer be the information  consumers as much as they are the content creators.

The event was most interesting because it demonstrated that the concerns from within the Wikimedia Foundation mirror those from within the academic community.  Whether the initiative succeeds depends on the extent to which it is embraced as a teaching tool, if students are empowered to create viable entries, and if more accurate entries emerge as a result.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Learning about OER – Open Educational Resources
The growing use of Wikis in education
Free Productivity Resources for Teachers



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