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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

Comments (58)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brendan Nahill's picture

In my opinion, Wikipedia is a good starting point in the classroom because the majority of the web pages on the site are factual and useful. 99% I use wikipedia for my projects entailing such subjects as 17th Literature, the Global Warming Crisis, and the World Economy and all the information I have recieved from Wikipedia has been true. Yes some pages are more biased based on the topic, yet it gives the kids a sense of diversity by seeing someone else's opinion and measuring up their own standpoints with the one's from the article. Wikipedia is also useful in helping kids to further their knowledge on a certain topic by getting links to sub-subjects within the wiki page.

Eric Murray's picture

I believe that Wikipedia is very useful both in and out of the classroom. Whenever, one needs easily obtainable information about a subject, Wikipedia is a great and for the most part, reliable source. It has over 3.5 million articles on different subjects ranging from pandas to the history of computers. Like the article says, one should always consult with the sources before using it in any formal essay or project. In the recent years, Wikipedia has become a lot more strict in who they let post and edit the pages. To edit a page, one must provide a valid source of where they got their information and the changes will eventually be reviewed to make sure that it is not nonsense. Overall, I believe that Wikipedia is a good source for learning the basics of a subject, but when one needs to learn about the specifics about a topic, they should review other more in depth sources.

Matthew Higgins's picture

In my own opinion I believe that Wikipedia is a good starting point for students to use when they are writing papers or doing projects; however, students should not only just use Wikipedia as their main source. When on the Wikipedia site, students should check the credibility of the information, to make sure the information is valid and correct. Many people say that the majority of information on Wikipedia is not valid or true, but I disagree. The information posted on Wikipedia is checked by the site monitors daily if not hourly. Although this system is not totally one-hundred percent prefect, much of the invalid or untrue information is discarded. As a student myself, I do not use Wikipedia as a source for my papers or projects. When I am doing projects I feel more secure using legit sources such as encyclopedias, books, or online references. I agree with teachers when they say Wikipedia is not a valid or legit source to use because there are various other sources which have credibility to back up their information.

Robert Clark's picture

I personally use Wikipedia as a starting point for mostly all of my school projects. The reason why I do this is because I feel that it helps me get a grasp of the main points of the topic. Then I would go and look for infromation on the main points.

The reason why I do not rely on Wikipedia for the entire thing is that you would not go and look at just one site for a project so you must use different sources so that you can confirm the details.

Most teachers in my school do not frown upon the use of wikipedia. They do require that we use other sources besides wikipedia. This is to ensure that our aurgments are valid and that they are able to be backed up by multiple amount of sources.

Francis DeMuro's picture

I also believe that wikipedia is a great tool to start research on a topic. The site has come a long way in cracking down on the posting of misinformation. Even with the possibility of containing falsehoods, the site is usually 98% correct. In comparison with other sources of research, wikipedia holds its own. However, in my school the site is not accepted as a legitimate source for citing. The possibility of any Joe Shmo being able to add information, even though this information is usually taken down, has many schools scared. Although I am not able to cite wikipedia, I still do not shy away from cross referencing other sources with this site.

Joseph OBrien's picture

In my opinion I believe that wikipedia is a reliable source to at least start research for school work. Although outside sources are able to edit the information that appears most of it is correct when you double check it with other sources. I often use wikipedia when starting research for papers and other assignments and find it to be very helpful.

matt mcclernand's picture

I firmly agree with the advice given to us from our school administers not to use wikipedia as a source. Although many times wikipedia offers information that appears to be valid and extremely useful, it is not guarenteed to be 100 percent accurate. Anybody has access to insert information onto the pages and this can cause immense confusion. It is much better to seek info from valid sources such as online encyclopedias.

Garant's picture

I personally like using wikipedia because i think it helps me find some answers faster and easier than shuffling through websites. Other websites can be a good source for a lot of information, but sometimes there is simple to much to go through when you have a time limit on an assignment. I believe that wikipedia is a convienant source of a variety of information even if some people bad mouth it, saying that the information is not valid.

briankelly818's picture

I believe Wikipedia should be a source that students can use because most of the information offered on that website can be taken as a true meaning of what is being referenced. Since Wikipedia is a public website open to everyone, it will always be available as a legitimate source. However, I believe that if a teacher assigns a project, he or she should require the students to use more than just one source, opening the door for the students to do further reseach than just the old typing in whatever into Wikipedia.

Roberto Somers's picture

In my opinion, Wikipedia is a good website that is well-known to everybody, making it the first research website that people go to when they have to make up a research paper. Wikipedia has valid sources for every one of their articles, making them reliable. Even if people are very suspicious of the article, they can always check the sources listed at the bottom of the article. I use Wikipedia as a last resort, when I can't find a decent website to find the facts I need, I use Wikipedia in order give me the facts I need. Every year, it becomes harder to immaturely edit a page for the reason that the website administrators check the sources and such.

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