I have had recurring discussions with my colleagues regarding our students’ use of Wikipedia in their writing projects. Some of my colleagues, whose opinions I respect a great deal, categorically forbid their students from using Wikipedia in research-based writing projects. Others will allow some use of Wikipedia references provided those are not the majority of references cited by the students. Still other professors take the position that Wikipedia articles are more likely to be accurate than other encyclopedias because of the open and ongoing nature of the way content in Wikipedia is edited, so, to the extent that encyclopedias are ok, Wikipedia is probably the best choice.
With these thoughts in mind, I was particularly interested to read an interesting report by John Orlando, Ph.D. titled “Wikipedia in the Classroom: Tips for Effective Use”. Dr. Orlando begins his article by stating: “Most academics consider Wikipedia the enemy and so forbid their students from using Wikipedia for research. But here’s a secret that they don’t want you to know—we all use Wikipedia, including those academics.” I think he’s probably right that most of us in academia do use Wikipedia – at least occasionally. And why not? After all, Wikipedia is constantly being scrutinized by knowledgeable people, many in academia, who are eager to ferret out any inaccuracies.
In a widely publicized report, the well respected journal Nature compared Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica online and found that “In the end, the journal [Nature] found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.” Not surprisingly, Encyclopedia Britannica objected to the results and Nature responded by saying they stood by their results and would not print a retraction.
The part of Orlando’s article that was of most interest to me was his report of how Professor Beasley-Murray used Wikipedia with his class. Professor Beasley-Murray challenged his students to create articles that would be accepted by Wikipedia and – this was a key part of the challenge – students whose articles earned a Wikipedia rating of “Good Article” would receive an A in the course and any student whose article received a Wikipedia rating of “Featured Article” would receive an A+. This was a pretty high bar as, according to Wikipedia, 1 in 359 articles reach “Good Article” status, as judged by impartial reviewers and only 1 in 1150 is given the “Featured Article” designation. The students in Beasley-Murray’s class were clearly engaged by the project as, Orlando reports, “The students, who worked in groups of two or three, produced three Featured Articles and eight Good Articles, an exceptional result given how few articles achieve these levels.”
Also, with respect to building student interest and engagement by employing Wikipedia, Orlando describes other Wikipedia projects: “One interesting site is Wikiversity, which provides a space for hosting courses or other content. An instructor can build a course page with syllabi, lesson plans, and other material for the students to access whenever they need it. That page can also be linked to other educational material such as videos.
Best yet, students can be given editing access to the page to add their own material. Groups can be assigned to add material to the course, such as resources for further exploration of the topics. Another option is to have the students build self-tests on the material using free web-based quiz functions for future students. This will enlist the students in an ongoing project of developing knowledge that outlives their particular class and is passed on to future generations of students.”
Wikipedia in the classroom – maybe not for everybody, but maybe an idea worth considering. What do you think?