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Using Wikipedia in the Classroom: A Good Starting Point

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
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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 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 blogger

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Oleh's picture

I myself, use Wikipedia a lot of times. It is really easy and fast to find needed information on it. When you just wondering about something, Wikipedia is a way to go. It is most of times has reliable information in short form, that anyone can understand.It is also great because of it variety of topics, it has information on everything.
However, there is a a downside about a website Wikipedia. Users are the one who post articles on it, so sometimes it might have wrong information, years, or facts. So when I have to do some paper for school, I only use Wikipedia to just to know my topic. While my research for a paper is based from a website that I can really trust.

Michael Dempster's picture

In my opinion, wikipedia serves as a benficial source in which students from all across the world can obtain information. I am excited of the potential that wikipedia holds in the future because I, along with many of my friends and the people that I know, use this website as a starting point for our assignments. More specfically, I tend to acknowledge the credibility of the source, or lack there of, before acquiring information from the particular website. Anyone has access to just directly alter certain topic pages on wikipedia; hence why we must always check its credibility. Despite this disadvantage, the benefits of wikipedia are astounding since students have the ability to explore such a wonderful search engine.

Ed's picture

I, personally, use wikipedia almost never. Many of my teachers - past and present - do not like my classmates and I to use it for projects, homework, ect. They claim that it is not a credible source of information and say that anybody can change the information on there. As this article states, wikipedia is an online enyclopedia "written in the form of a wiki." A wiki is just another word for blog, which is an article written by other people. If we use these articles on wikipedia for project papers as reference, how do we know that the information is factual and not opinionated? Even with the section specified for sources, how do you know that the author of the wiki article really used that source? How do you know that person didn't just put that there? I back up my teachers 100% on this topic because they provide legitimate reasons for students not to use it. This is some of the many reasons I do not use Wikipedia.

Jonathan Rodriguez's picture

I personally use Wikipedia as a foundation for my research. If i have to look up a new topic that i have had n prior experience with, i use wikipedia to get an overview of the topic. Wikipedia also provides the external links at the bottom as sources, which i personally go to afterward to find qoutes and specific names. If something is still not clear, now i have an idea of what i need to look for on other sites. It makes finding information and research alot easier and more manageable when you know what you are looking for.

Jarred Gettes's picture

I believe that wikipedia is a good starting point for students when they have projects and assignments, but i cant see using wikipedia as your main source of information. I believe that wikipedia should be used to gain background information on a paticular subject, but nothing more because peopl can put false information on Wikipedia. Even though some of the information can be false, i still think it is great to use for students to get a general idea on whatever it is they are searching. Then from there, students will know what they are looking for and can find a more reliable source.

Tyler Cameron's picture

For me, step one of any typed project is generally looking up the topic on Wikipedia. I research as much information on this site that is offered on the topic, and progress from there on other webpages concerning the same subject. However, I do not base much of my paper off of what is solely on Wikipedia, because I know how common the site is. Many people are using the same information as me for the same project, and I feel it would be much more beneficial to branch out to other pages that offer the information in different opinions, formats, and studies. It is often heard that a teacher does not recommend using Wikipedia because of its unreliable nature or reputation. However, like many things the internet has to offer, Wikipedia does supply its user with very helpful information, if used correctly. One must realize that with Wikipedia, other sites should be used to crossreference such information before used on a paper or project. This being said, Wikipedia is one of the most helpful and inciteful ways to get started on a research project or paper.

Kristopher Castro's picture

In my opinion, Wikipedia is a great tool to use as a starting point. Before doing extensive research on any topic, I first check Wikipedia in order to find some background information. After I gather enough information to get a basic idea of the topic, I check the sources from which Wikipedia gets its information. Although it is a great tool for personal research, and a good place to use as a starting point, I definitely do not think Wikipedia should be used as the only source of information for research on any topic. Because any user can edit a page on Wikipedia, it is not a reliable source of information. Even though they have a staff dedicated to fixing errors, it is impossible for them to find every edited page with incorrect information. Because of this, Wikipedia should not be allowed to be used as a source for research on a school assignment. Even if it used as a starting point, information is very rarely used straight from Wikipedia.

Michael Haldis's picture

In my opinion, I believe that Wikipedia serves as a very good source for information. As many other people have said, I use it for almost all of my school projects and even some of my homework. The only downside to using Wikipedia is that anybody with a computer can change the facts to something that is false. The teachers at my school tell us not to use Wikipedia because the information sometimes isn't accurate and can also sometimes be totally wrong. Even though my teachers believe it isn't a good site, I still think Wikipedia provides me with a ton of information and is a very helpful source that I have often used and will continue to use throughout my High School term.

Colin Sulpizio's picture

I personally like to use wikipedia for information. However, many of my teachers say it is an unreliable source and for most, a source that cannot be credited in a bibliography. I have found that most of the history or scientificly based information is true, which is on of the main purposes for using wikipedia. The fact that people can just randomly change or post stuff though is a challenging aspect, but most of the false information is relatively easy to point out and eliminate. I am not totally convinced about the last part of the article however. Not everyone has the desire to spend their time posting things that they think is important or relevant. Wikipedia should really only be a place for facts and the people that run it should look over historical and scientifical information posted. If information under these topics are true, the webmasters should "lock" the current information and only allow changes or new posts if they have clerified their source and factuality.

BOJoeKO1122's picture

In my school, the use Wikipedia is allowed for looking up information about standard information on almost about anything. However, when it comes to writting essays, teachers usually don't allow students to use Wikipedia as a "Reliable" source. In my opinion, I think that teachers are right, but only to a certein point. Wikipedia is consistenly updated by people each day; these people add information onto certein pages as well as making new pages for other web searchers to find information on. On behalf of the teachers, it really isn't 100% relaible because we do not know how accurate the information is that was put up by these random people. I think that Wikipedia is a good starting point though because it gives students the ability give a broad topic, look it up on Wikipedia, research about it, and then enhance their information and search another website with more vaild/percise information. Wikipedia gives people the ability to learn more about their topic and nothing more; we can't be totally sure about the information presented until you learn more about what you are searching for.

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