The world uses Wikipedia. Students use Wikipedia. The question is, how can they use it intelligently, responsibly, and with critical thinking and information-literacy?
That question is a deep one, and it makes a great jumping off point for bringing Wikipedia into the classroom--not, as many teachers or librarians fear, as a definitive reference work, but as a starting point for research and a place to reflect on contemporary knowledge production.
The neat part of Wikipedia is its rich and complex community and the numerous pillars and policies that the community has created in order to guide its work of creating a neutral, reliable online encyclopedia.
A great starting point for bringing Wikipedia into the classroom is to ask, "How can something so open be so reliable?" A seminal 2005 study in Nature found Wikipedia was as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica and many follow-up studies have confirmed the same.
Students and teachers can both learn from understanding Wikipedia's reliability-creating mechanisms, it's mix of automated, semi-automated, and human-review which acts as a sort of informal, ongoing, post-publication peer review.
But each Wikipedia article is different, so a great place to start is by having students Evaluate Wikipedia on a per-article basis. Looking for errors, grading the density and quality of citations, and identifying biased words or phrases are all ways for students to think about the quality of an article. Most students and teachers don't know that every Wikipedia article is 'rated' on a stub-class to featured-class rubric and that these grades are posted on each article's associated Talk page.
The neat part of this assignment is that it appeals to educators whether they support Wikipedia's role in education or not, because the goal is to evaluate rather than to consume.
If teachers find this entree appetizing, the next step is to have students select articles as part of their classwork and develop quality content for credit as part of a project or even semester-wide syllabus component. Having students work on contributing to Wikipedia is even more deeply rewarding, because it presents as many challenges as it does opportunities.
Students may work on an article that is viewed hundreds of thousands of times per month, as happened in 2011 with a student working on an article related to the Egyptian Revolution. Or, as happens from time to time, a student's work may be deleted as 'not-notable' and incite a discussion about which topics are worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia and which kinds of sources are sufficient to bolster the claims made about them.
Wikipedia is a discourse-rich environment and students are presented with numerous chances to act as digital citizens, partaking in the discussions around knowledge and its summary with an array of anonymous participants from around the world.
Teachers who want to bring Wikipedia into the classroom can take heart that they are not alone! Since 2010 hundreds of classes have incorporated Wikipedia into assignments and in doing so created tens of thousands of pages worth of content for Wikipedia's articles.
The Wikipedia Education Program (and the associated Wiki Education Foundation) provides guidance and course materials to make it easy for teachers to create an integrated syllabus and get involved. There are ways to enroll students and track their contributions using an Enrollment application on Wikipedia. There are brochures, pamphlets, sample assignments and semester-long syllabi. There are tutorials and interactive learning modules. There are waiting and willing community ambassadors who partner with a class to answer questions and give feedback.
The world of Wikipedia opens a new landscape to students and brings them into a critical discussion about critical thinking and critically consuming information in the modern online world. Bring your students into that discussion and let us help!
If you missed this or any other Plagiarism Education Week webcast, you can view them all on-demand at your convenience.
About the Presenter
Jake Orlowitz (User:Ocaasi) is an administrator on Wikipedia and has been a Wikipedia editor since 2007. He's made over 30,000 original edits to the site, and created new articles in the areas of biography, medicine, and international government. He founded The Wikipedia Library in 2012, an open research hub for top editors to gain access to reliable sources and to reference experts. Jake also works on partnerships between Wikipedia and schools, organizations, companies, and cultural institutions. Jake graduated Wesleyan University in 2005, and lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where he works full-time on Wikipedia projects.