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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Wikipedia in the Classroom: A Good Starting Point

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger

You've all heard by now of Wikipedia, the online, collaborative, social encyclopedia, written in the form of a wiki. As of this past spring, Wikipedia had nearly 3.5 million articles in more than 125 languages.

This kind of knowledge sharing isn't new to education. It's what all of us skilled educators are all about -- it's the format that has shaken up a few classrooms. One teacher said to me recently, "I use it personally all the time. I'm just not comfortable letting the students use it." Yet another said, "Any teacher who isn't jumping for joy over something like Wikipedia has his head in the sand. There's just so much good learning taking place by the sheer nature of what Wikipedia is, not to mention the actual content!"

I'm certainly one who agrees more with the latter. I'm all over Wikipedia, and I've got everyone around me addicted as well. I think it presents a new challenge to classrooms, but a very positive and welcome one -- new sources, new methods for getting information, and new ways to take advantage of that online-focused mentality that pervades much of the MySpace generation.

So, tell us about your uses of Wikipedia. Have you come to accept it, when you didn't before? Has it taken hold in your school? Are you as excited about it as I am about the potential it holds for our twenty-first-century students? How are you incorporating the usual copyright, citations, and media-literacy issues into the use of Wikipedia?

According to the Wikipedia FAQ, "Properly written articles cite the sources, and a reader should rely on the Wikipedia article as much, but no more, than the sources the article relies on. If an article doesn't cite a source, it may or may not be reliable. Students should never use information in Wikipedia for formal purposes (such as a school essay) until they have checked those external sources."

In my mind, that's just good common sense. Last summer, Andy Carvin, at PBS's Learning.now blog, polled his readers to get their thoughts on the use of Wikipedia in the classroom. The tone of many of the responses suggested that it is still somewhat new territory for many classrooms, though other teachers were sold on it. I'm wondering now, about three months into a new school year, how much more acceptance its garnered.

I have taught my ten-year-old daughter to visit Wikipedia as a launch pad for up-to-the-minute information. She (and I) have come to rely on it as our first stop in information-gathering activities. We've come to count on it as an immediate fact-gathering base, and from there we decide how much further we want to explore, if at all.

If you haven't taken part yet, search Wikipedia for your hometown. See if there are some interesting facts you know about that aren't yet posted, and contribute, or, better yet, have your students research, edit, and update articles. You just might find sharing your knowledge a very addictive thing!

Finally, be sure to check out the Wikibook on using Wikipedia in the Classroom.

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Comments (58)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ryan DiMarino's picture

There is definitely a reason why Wikipedia has grown so quickly and has become the first place people look for information - it's easy and reliable. As its popularity has grown, so has its supervision. Teachers may be skeptical of Wikipedia due to a misconception that its information is wrong, although most information is cited. It's often forgotten that any information can be circulated on the Internet; none of it is infallible. Perhaps it is also a matter of jealousy - such a vast array of compiled information has never been available before in one place, and surely they would have liked to use it.

Wikipedia is now the best and easiest way to find information on the web, and it's safe to say it will stay that way for a long time.

Joseph Lee's picture

I have always used wikipedia as a source for all of my essays, but I back it up with a citation from a physical encyclopedia. My teachers have always said, "Don't use wikipedia as a source because anybody can edit it." I think that's what makes wikipedia great! The viewpoints from many different people can be expressed in one article, hopefully with citations to back up the claims.

As the article quoted the Wikipedia FAQ, just make sure that the sources that are cited in the article are reliable. Obviously if a Wikipedia article states that the population of New York City is 900 million people and it quotes "notrealfacts.com" as its source, it's not reliable. But if it says the US population is roughly 330 million and quotes the CIA World Fact Book as its source, it's reliable. It is all a matter of common sense. Check the sources, and Wikipedia can and will be a great place to get information for anything and everything.

adam leszczynski's picture

I think that wikipedia is a good source for information...ehh? It conatins many useful facts that can be used in school projects. Many people think it is an unreliable source because anyone can edit it, but in what I have seen, right after you edit significant information, they change it back to its original version. I dont think because should necessarily get excited about using it like the person in the article but it depends on the person. I soon think it will be more widely accepted in schools because it will begin to be more trusted.

Ryan Cassedy's picture

I find that Wikipedia is very frequently used by me and my fellow peers at my school. Although some students lazily use this site as their only source, most students use it as a base or something to fill in missing gaps in other articles. A number of teachers discourage the use of Wikipedia saying it is inaccurate and unreliable but through my own repeated use i have found it to be highly accurate and very useful. It often aids in the idea of completely and accurately understanding the topic being researched. I tend to use the site for every project, but not as a primary source for my research.

Robert Crossley's picture

Wikipedia is great place to gather a vast amount of knowledge. Yes' it can be edited by people but these edits are monitored and taken down if false very quickly. More often than not do people find information on wikipedia to be more reliable thna the information given at someones personal website where no monitoring takes place and people can pass their own opinions off as facts.

As for my self, I use wikipedia more than the average person. I am in the model UN club at my school. It is a club where students from around the world take on the role as an embassador from countries around the world. This may I will competing in the world championship representing the nation of Yemen. Yemen is a very small country and information is limited. This is where wikipedia comes in. Wikipedia has the most reliable and in my opinion factual information regarding the topics and profile of Yemen.

To say wikipedia is unreliable is like saying the grass is blue. It is an untrue statement. Wikipedia is great source and should be widely used in the classroom. How can you expect a student to do well if you are not allowing them to use the internets most accesible site.

Ryan Cassedy's picture

I find that Wikipedia is very frequently used by me and my fellow peers at my school. Although some students lazily use this site as their only source, most students use it as a base or something to fill in missing gaps in other articles. A number of teachers discourage the use of Wikipedia saying it is inaccurate and unreliable but through my own repeated use i have found it to be highly accurate and very useful. It often aids in the idea of completely and accurately understanding the topic being researched. I tend to use the site for every project, but not as a primary source for my research.

Fran Mackin's picture

i think that usding wikipedia is goood for getting started on any type of research. i hear thaty it can be changed by anyone? but i dont really think the infomation on there is too far from the truth if not exactly the truth. i personally have already used it for many papers and projects and have yet to get the project back saying "wrong information". and even if you use wikipedia a good student will use more then one source so if they contradict each other check another until they match. the chances of two different sources having the same wrong information is probably pretty low. so yes wikipedia is a good starting point, just make sure to use more then one source.

James Granja's picture

I think Wikipedia would be a great source if all the information is correct. Wikipedia is a great tool now but I don't like the fact that the information could be false and that just anyone can go on and alter the information that you are looking at. Teachers won't allow you to use Wikipedia as a source since the information may not be accurate. If Wikipedia consisted of all accurate and knowledgeable information then everyone could use this website as a great tool, I know it would help out a lot of current students. Until then it is nothing more then a website that you can go on to try and assist you.

jmckinstry11's picture

I don't believe that using wikipedia should be allowed in the classroom, or even as a reference for projects or homework or anything of the sort. Not entirely that it shouldn't be allowed but it shouldn't be encouraged. My decision is based soley of the fact that anybody, from any computer, at anytime can change any of the information posted on the site. A hit TV show recently exposed the websites flaws when they did a story on how some people were changing the information on wikipedia for when you searched a specific actor, then went on and created their own page on wikipedia for the show and allowed viewers to go on and put whatever information they pleased. This is a perfect example for why wikipedia should be avoided when it comes to using it as anytime of reference.

Andrew Damiano's picture

I believe that wikipedia is a great starting point for students. It helps them to get itroduced to the topic they are learning about. It has many different uses and does not just need to be for school. Wikipedia helps students to learn about virtually any topic they are looking for.

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