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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

antpallante's picture

In my opinion, Wikipedia is a good starting point. Before I begin my papers and assignments that require research, I look at wikipedia for some quick background information so I know what i am going to do with the paper. Wikipedia should be allowed as a cited source by teachers because no matter what, a kid uses wikipedia at one point in their paper. Wikipedia has knowledge that all websites use, nd is in one location so its an easier method of finding information.

antpallante's picture

In my opinion, Wikipedia is a good starting point. Before I begin my papers and assignments that require research, I look at wikipedia for some quick background information so I know what i am going to do with the paper. Wikipedia should be allowed as a cited source by teachers because no matter what, a kid uses wikipedia at one point in their paper. Wikipedia has knowledge that all websites use, nd is in one location so its an easier method of finding information.

Matthew Babnew's picture
Matthew Babnew
I'm a student at Father Judge taking the introduction to programming course

When Wikipedia is used properly, it can be a very useful and effective source. The problem with Wikipedia is that too many students rely solely on Wikipedia, without checking the cited sources of the article. Sometimes an article can be posted without the proper sources, and then that article is used by a student as the only credible source for a research paper. The student then questions why they receive a below par grade for the paper, and the problem lies in their facts. When a student bases their paper off incorrect facts, their paper then becomes false and incorrect.

John Herbut's picture

Contrary to many teachers, I believe Wikipedia is a good spring board. Most teachers argue that it is an invalid source because it can be easily edited, however, over the years the status of Wikipedia has grown greatly and as a result the website has become heavily monitored. This monitoring has made it so that few trivial and inaccurate facts are used to make certain information false. Like most things, Wikipedia is not fool proof but it is a work and progress and I personally believe soon it was be looked upon as a valid source. Then again, Wikipedia is not intended to be a source, rather an encyclopedia if you will because it gathers information from various other sources and puts them together for convenient access. I do not use Wikipedia has a legitimate source because of his reputation but that does not stop me and any other students from using it.

Jeison Barbosa's picture
Jeison Barbosa
I'm a student at Father Judge taking the programming in Java course

Wikipedia is just that, A great starting point. It is a great site to start working on a topic it gives key ideas that can and should be explored in more depth. It is a great basis for starting off a project. The downside of wikipedia is that students use it as their main source. We all know that wikipedia is a collaboration subsequently it is easier for misinformed people to annex their inaccurate facts. Though inaccurate information is unlikely to be found on wikipedia with all the revising done by the editors of wikipedia, it is still a possibility therefore should not be used as the main source for investigating a topic.

Shawn w's picture

I originally was against using wikipedia as a source because I did not think it could be reliable, but I am now aware that there are source listings on certain pages. This sways my opinion drastically. I feel as though if there is a reliable source, wikipedia can be used to find information for projects, papers, and just gaining information in general.

Conor Brophy's picture

In the beginning,I was taught that Wikipedia was never to be trusted. Although this rule was imposed, Wikipedia was the first place I always went. After some time, the rules for posting on Wikipedia were changed so now everything was more stable. No longer can someone post anything they want. Then need legitimate sources and true facts. There are people checking the legitimacy of each article every day. I think that Wikipedia is now a good source for papers so long as you first check the sources. The articles on Wikipedia are usually paraphrases of the actual source. In the future I plan on continuing to use Wikipedia not only in my daily life but also for papers.

Larry's picture

Type anything you want to research into Google and 9 times out of 10 the first site Google or any search engine will give you is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great new tool; massive amounts of knowledge about almost any subject matter all on one site. I don't think many people have a problem with this concept, in fact, I feel that most people support the site in this fashion, but the problem comes about when people learn that all the info on wikipedia can be edited by thier peers and thus be made false. This is the main argument why most teachers are against the students using Wikipedia as a source for a paper they would turn in. But as this article states, not all the info on Wikipedia is reliable, but the ones that site thier sources are usually quite reliable and should be allowed to be used for researching. Wikipedia is a great tool in researching and educating that should be embraced, but also people should be cautious and weary about the info they get from this site just as any other site from the internet, the only difference is that this one site has become the most popular of any research website.

john breslin's picture

Although at one point Wikipedia was a a unreliable source filled with lies and jokes today it is hundreds of times more accurate. Before anyone could post anything they wanted on Wikipedia but now there are parameters that must be met before you can post the article. These parameters include siting sources. By siting sources the author adds legitimizes his article. Also all the articles posted are reviewed by a panel of supervisors.

Napoleon Bonaparte's picture
Napoleon Bonaparte
Emperor from Corsica

I think that Wikipedia is a great source - with some reservations. It's useful when looking up tidbits of info you might want to know, but any serious historical researcher would find it droll and illegitimate.

Anyone can write on there, even peasants who've never picked up a book in their life... Not to say there isn't excellently researched material...Take the article on the First French Empire, my glorious domain, for instance.

The price of getting poor information on wikipedia can be deadly. For example, my Marshal Grouchy was once provided with the completely wrong position to place his troops at the Battle of Waterloo. He didn't even show up, and it cost me the Battle! Waterloo went down in history as the end of the French Empire. Poor guy probably got his info off wikipedia...

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