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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

MattMicko's picture

I will admit, that I use wikipedia frequently when doing projects, or research on world affairs. It is a good place to get a foundation to branch your further research off of. I do feel, however; that the sole use of wikipedia is not a very smart choice, because more information and different points of view can be found all over the internet. Google not only can point you to a wikipedia page that would help you on the topic you are researching but also can help you find other websites that you can use, along with wikipedia. While doing a paper, one must have multiple sources to have a well-written, and well-informed paper, because they must gain as many facts as possible to support their argument. So yes, I do feel that the use of wikipedia in schools and at home is very useful in doing projects though I feel multiple sources must be used while doing them.

Patrick Baranowski's picture

To me using Wikipedia is more simple than sifting through the entire internet for some fact that is written simply in Wikipedia. For one it is always the first source whenever you Google something, and the information they supply is, for the most part, factual, very easy to understand, and organized as an outline as you would receive from a teacher. Although just using for everyday activities is easy, it is even more simple to use for school assignments. Teachers warn students not to use wikipedia, rightfully so, but it just makes the task of looking up a small city in Europe incredibly easy. Now I recomend for anyone using Wikipedia to just double check the information they get from the site with another more reliable source, but as a student I would recomend using wikipedia to anyone.

Jay Roberts's picture

In my mind wikipedia is helpful if used for quickly gather facts or if you want information on a topic quickly. I do not believe however it should be used for formal papers such as research papers in school as stated in the article. By allowing anybody to change the material on the web pages, it creates a small side of untrustworthiness that bothers me when I occasionally use it. There are also just as many other sites on the web that have completely reliable pages of information. Surely this is easier than checking if the sources used on wikipedia are reliable or not. The bottom line is, wikipedia is not harmful if used for recreation or just to get up to date information quickly, however, if doing a formal paper with it, the sources which the information came from should be checked and even rechecked after that.

ZachBirnski's picture
ZachBirnski
I'm a guy.

Basing my viewpoints on my prior years in high school, Wikipedia has proved to be an invaluable "tree" of information for any academic project I had to tackle. While many teachers are keenly suspicious of their students using Wikipedia in their papers, many don't realize that it is, in fact, the greatest assistance a young person could be given. As stated in the article, one would not be so smart as to naively accept all information on the online encyclopedia as absolute truth, because it is openly editable by billions of people across the globe, which can be seen as both a positive and negative aspect in varying lights. That being said, the site undoubtedly presents one with a start to information gathering. Wikipedia can be seen as a mere doorway to learning, its intellectual collection spanning millions of pages throughout the internet. I, as a student, have used Wikipedia in almost virtually all my assessments as a means to discover assuredly valid pages dealing with the same topic and I'm sure the majority of my school has as well. Without this well of expansive information, the world would lack the collaboration the site has given us causing curious minds to be restricted their due right to learn.
- Zach Birney

ZachBirnski's picture
ZachBirnski
I'm a guy.

Basing my viewpoints on my prior years in high school, Wikipedia has proved to be an invaluable "tree" of information for any academic project I had to tackle. While many teachers are keenly suspicious of their students using Wikipedia in their papers, many don't realize that it is, in fact, the greatest assistance a young person could be given. As stated in the article, one would not be so smart as to naively accept all information on the online encyclopedia as absolute truth, because it is openly editable by billions of people across the globe, which can be seen as both a positive and negative aspect in varying lights. That being said, the site undoubtedly presents one with a start to information gathering. Wikipedia can be seen as a mere doorway to learning, its intellectual collection spanning millions of pages throughout the internet. I, as a student, have used Wikipedia in almost virtually all my assessments as a means to discover assuredly valid pages dealing with the same topic and I'm sure the majority of my school has as well. Without this well of expansive information, the world would lack the collaboration the site has given us causing curious minds to be restricted their due right to learn.
- Zach Birney

Francis Bovio's picture

Wikipedia is a good starting point when a person is researching a topic. It contains a vast amount of information on all subjects. However, Wikipedia should not be used as a person's main source because it can sometimes be unreliable. Anyone can go into this website and write false information. In reaction to this problem, the website has more people monitoring what people post on the website. Therefore, Wikipedia is a good starting point, but should not be used as a sole source for information.

Kamil's picture

I believe that Wikipedia is a very good useful website to find what you are looking for either in a project and an assignment or some other topic. I think that Wikipedia should be used as a site to help you better understand the general concept of the material your looking up, but it should not be the main source of information. It has over 3.5 million articles in 125 different languages; these can range from computer to cavemen. The only thing that is stopping this website from not being a great source of information is its reliability in its valid information because anybody can go on the website and edit it. Overall, though I am still determined that Wikipedia is a good way for students to quickly find facts about a certain subject and if they would want to go more in depth in the matter, they should find a better more accurate website.

James Edmund Long I's picture
James Edmund Long I
Computers, computers, computers!

In my opinion, I also agree with the latter statement in the article that supporst use of Wikipedia. However I can understand where certain teachers are coming from when they claim that they do not want their students using it for research. I find it interesting to look up minor facts and fun research about topics for our own personal joy and whatever we believe is up to us. But a topic that made many people unsure about its credibility is the sources of the information. Many people can just edit the information for any article and put whatever they want in there. However, recent stricter rules regarding this I believe have made the website all around better. With the proper citations and references, I think that it should be welcome in school because it is truly a remarkable way to spread knowledge.

Brian McAdams's picture
Brian McAdams
comment on an article

wikipedia is a great source for information on topics you may not find anywhere else, but the only problem is that anyone can post anything. this often requires that a student can use wikipedia but has tot make sure that he can confirm the information by using another source. since wikipedia is a public website, there is always the possibility of fake or incorrect information, but so far i have yet to find any facts on wikipedia that were not true.

Chris Dempsey's picture

I beleive that Wikipedia is helpful in the classrooms. It has many different sources of information listed at the bottom of the small wiki cites. People say that it is inaccurate because people modify things, but now you must cite sources. Most off the information i have found was fast and easily readible, and you can check the sources for correctness. It is extremely helpful with finding answers to simple questions. Its also a good way to begin projects because it links you to more specific information on a broad topic.

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