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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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Phyllis T. Shepherd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I like Blogging. It is a part of a Multimedia Course that I am taking presently in an online PhD program. This is an easy blog to post to. No login is required.
Susan Brooks-Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Hi Chris, I also find that I frequently use Wikipedia as a springboard for further research. I recently heard an interview with one of the guys who developed Wikipedia. He was asked about the margin of error in articles posted there and his response made perfect sense. Basically he said that when he was in high school, his teachers allowed students to use encyclopedias for general research, but they weren't allowed to cite encyclopedia articles in their bibliographies. Instead, they were required to take the information they found there and verify it using other sources which they could use in their bibliographies. Sounds like a good approach to me!
Leslie Shinaver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
While I use Wikipedia as an avenue to get students thinking about multi-faceted ideas, I'm embracing the use of wikis in an online class I'm developing. Creating annotated web texts will help students and I communicate about literary devices, vocabulary, sentence structure, thematic development, etc. Once students learn how to create links within the document, I hope to have my whole class dissecting Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown."
Geoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I worry that my kids use wikipedia too much, at the expense of other, sometimes more credible sources.
Lynn McNally's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Wikipedia is a great starting point, but I have to agree with Geoff. We are finding that students are not very thoughtful about information that they find on the web. We all know that there are lots of bogus webpages and webpages that are very biased in the info they present. Kids want to believe everything they read (http://www.fvza.org/). We would really like to see our students thoughtfully using some of the credible sources to which our school district subscribes. Have students build their own body of knowledge through wikis could be powerful. Blogs are also another great social learning tool that the kids LOVE. Loudoun has launched a blogging feature on our school district webpages. See recent blog from field trip to the Bamamas. http://cmsweb1.loudoun.k12.va.us/381720111514175330/blank/browse.asp?A=3...
Patsy Lanclos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The nice thing about Wikipedia is that it is current! Think Pluto, tsunami, Rita, Katrina… Looking in print textbooks or encyclopedias cannot validate this current information. Certainly all information should be cross-checked for validity but you have to be sure that your cross checks are accurate. Good topic, Chris.
Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Just came across this link - something I'd read before, but couldn't quite find the source. This is an interesting article about the accuracy of Wikipedia, etc.
Bruce Stover's picture

As a student I found myself on a regular basis using wikipedia for quick facts on all different types of subjects. I believe wikipedia is a great tool that is available to anyone that has to access to the Internet. However, wikipedia dopes have a downfall. The fact that anyone can alter or add information to wikipedia makes some people unwilling to accpet its information as the truth. When I find myself using wikipedia I make sure to find a backup site where the information is similar. I believe wikipedia is a tool that should be taken advantage of by students and teacher alike. Just make sure to find a backup.

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