Teaching Wikipedia as a Research Tool

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Wikipedia In The Classroom

The first “wiki,” or user-edited Web page, was made in 1995 to improve communication between computer programmers. With more than 3 million articles, Wikipedia, the user-edited encyclopedia, is the world’s most widely used wiki. And because a Wikipedia entry comes up for almost any Google search, students will inevitably encounter the site during their research. For this reason, it’s important to teach students about using Wikipedia effectively and avoiding its pitfalls.

The online dictionary Webopedia defines a wiki as “a collaborative Web site [comprising] the perpetual collective work of many authors … a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete or modify content that has been placed on the Web site … including the work of previous authors.”  Due to the fact that Wikipedia is open to the public, anyone with an Internet connection is free to anonymously contribute to the online encyclopedia by either adding a new article or editing a previous author’s work.

Use the Wikipedia Web Guide for essential information on what Wikipedia is, how it can be used effectively and the potential flaws users should be aware of. 

Teaching Wikipedia as a Research Tool

Despite Wikipedia’s shortcomings and the “unreliable” nature of its content, the Web site can still be a helpful research tool for students. Using it effectively requires understanding the site’s strengths and flaws, and applying this knowledge to access quality information.

Insight for Using Wikipedia in School

  • Wikipedia has a policy that requires its contributors to cite verifiable online sources for the items they are writing. While enforcement of this rule for more obscure topics on the site can sometimes be lax, the more popular articles usually have citations. One useful way to use Wikipedia is as a jumping point to other potentially more trustworthy resources, which appear as citations at the bottom of many Wikipedia entries.
  • Disputed historical and political events are often influenced by the Wikipedia contributor's ideology, even if done so unintentionally.
  • Often, articles without citations (for example, articles that appear incomplete or that may not be neutral in their viewpoint) are labeled as such by a banner at the top of the page. This allows other editors to look for and pick up the slack, and for readers to be aware that the given article is unreliable.
  • The debate surrounding Wikipedia also makes the site a good jumping off point for lessons about evaluating Web sites and information for reliability, and for lessons on critical reading.
  • You do have to cite Wikipedia, no matter how mundane the information. WikiHow has a step-by-step guide for citing a Wikipedia article.

Top Sites for Teaching Students About Wikipedia

For Wikipedia and the classroom …

The National Writing Project published an article, “Wikipedia: Friend, Not Foe,” that outlines the benefits of using Wikipedia in school, and offers advice on how to do it. Find the full text of the article here

Wikipedia Selection for schools
is a handpicked and vetted assortment of Wikipedia articles that have been deemed useful for students. Articles are organized topically, and separated from the Wikipedia main page to prevent students from accessing irrelevant or inaccurate information.

PBS Teachers
has a blog, Learning.now, with an article that attempts to cull the opinions of educators on Wikipedia’s role in the classroom. The article can be used to gain a broad understanding of the site, and inform the way you teach your students about Wikipedia.

For evaluating information quality …

FindingDulcinea has a primer on assessing the credibility of online information that can be applied to student use of Wikipedia.

ReadWriteThink
offers a lesson plan that incorporates Wikipedia and Web reading into a lesson about reading analysis and investigation.

National History Education Clearinghouse has information and links to help students evaluate Web sites for accuracy and relevancy in research, and includes links to YouTube slideshows and articles written for young students.

For editing Wikipedia in class …

National Science Digital Library
has an article about using wikis in the classroom. It focuses on how editing wikis can teach younger students lessons about composition, word processing, computers and information organization.

Wikipedia hosts information about how to edit its pages, as does the site LifeHacker.

North Shore Middle School’s Wikipedia page is created and hosted by kids, and is a good example of how kids can use Wikipedia.

MakeUseOf offers a list of popular wikis in addition to Wikipedia.
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