Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wikipedia Is A Teaching Opportunity

My kids are forever complaining about how teachers won't let them cite Wikipedia as a source for reports. Now I do understand, kids would like to use Wikipedia, and nothing else. It was much the same when I was a young student--teachers would make us use at least three sources, only one of which could be an encyclopedia. But we were allowed to use an encyclopedia. Many teachers are completely banning Wikipedia. Their rationalization? It's not authoritative, "anybody" can edit Wikipedia.

They are SO missing a great teaching opportunity. There is so much to think about with Wikipedia. It is fundamentally an astounding collaborative intellectual achievement. It is remarkably resilient. And it contains articles on topical and pop-culture subjects that would just never be found in a traditional encyclopedia. Oh, and the fact that "anybody can edit"--this is often a feature, not a bug[1], because it lets errors get corrected, and quickly.

Dissing Wikipedia--especially when not having a full command of the facts[2]--takes a toll on credibility. Sorta like exaggerating the dangers of drugs and alcohol[3]--in my book, it's always a long-term mistake to mis-represent your subject for the short-term benefit of "winning" a debate.

If any teachers out there are interested in this topic, I might be up for collaborating on creating curiculum for a seminar or unit on Wikipedia.


[1] This very link is an example of the kind of topical thing that Wikipedia is indispensable for documenting. (Ironically note that this link it not to Wikipedia, but an extremely edgy offshoot of it...which would make for a supplementary lesson in the Wikipedia curriculum, and just points out how rich the subject is...

[2] Just to pick it has developed, Wikipedia has put more and more limitations around the "anybody can edit" policy.

[3] In no way should this be interpreted as a blithe, laissez-faire skepticism that drugs and alcohol are bad. No debate, they bad. My point is that their badness more often manifests in the longer-term, so exaggerating their negative effects in the short-term torpedoes one's credibility, particularly with an audience--teens--that is, for well-established reasons, especially prone to the bias of over-weighting short-term evidence.


  1. And they are incorrect as to it's 'correctness'. There was a study a while back comparing Wikipedia and Britanica or another encyclopedia and it was found that each of them had errors but the key thing is that Wikipedia get's updated quickly.

    Jeff Luke inserted a faux new article on the midwestern silver squirrel into Wikipedia and it only lasted a week or so until they took it down. So a week for something as inane as that is pretty good. If you were to try to edit George Washinton or other 'important topics' it would not even make it onto the site. All changes are tracked and researched.

    Using multiple sources is key but to say that Wikip[edia can not or shold not be one of those is insane in my humble opinion.

  2. All very true. I remember the debates with Jeff, and the infamous Chesapeake Squirrel. It was a good experiment...not sure why he was initially in the anti-Wikipedia camp.

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