Wikipedia in the Classroom

In TechnoJourney, the students are beginning Assignment 5, where they use the Internet to explore sources of information. The classroom teacher is thrilled. Soon her students will begin to research a health project about the human body and a science project about flight. Strong Internet research skills are vital. This raises the issue of whether Wikipedia is a resource that should be used in the classroom.

UPDATE: TechnoJourney was replaced with TechnoInternet. The activities are similar.

The Wikipedia Issue in Schools

Walk into a school library or teacher staff room and utter the word “Wikipedia“. You’re sure to get a reaction! Educators seem to be strongly opinionated on the use of this online encyclopedia. They are firmly entrenched on one side of the issue or the other: whether they are adamantly opposed to its use and want to ban it from the classroom or are supportive and endorse its use as a reference tool. Detractors of Wikipedia cite its lack of reliable, scholarly input and the fact that it’s not a primary source of data. Proponents of Wikipedia suggest that it’s a useful beginning point for student research and that it teaches young minds to be cautious and questioning of all information sources.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. What makes Wikipedia different from most encyclopedias is that it is collaborative: articles are written by anyone who has Internet access. People of all ages, viewpoints, and levels of expertise can contribute, writing new articles or adding to or editing existing articles. Wikipedia is considered a work in progress. The articles are never finished as they are continually being updated and changed with the goal of constant and cumulative improvement of knowledge.

It is one of the largest collections of information available in the world.

What are the benefits of using Wikipedia in the classroom?

Wikipedia Logo
Wikipedia is a free, collaborative online encyclopedia. Anyone can write and edit articles.
  • Jump start research: Wikipedia provides basic, general information that can be a good starting point for student research projects. Should students select a complex, difficult topic, the language in Wikipedia usually describes the concept in basic, easy to understand words appropriate for most students.
  • Find related sources: Contributors to Wikipedia articles are asked to cite verifiable, reliable sources for the information they provide. At the end of most articles, links to these references are supplied. Also included are external links, which provide users with a convenient set of ready made ‘bookmarks’ to lead to further related sites. Students should be encouraged to use these links which often lead to primary sources suitable for bibliographies.
  • Hyperlinks: Terms, words, and phrases in articles in Wikipedia are hyperlinked to definitions and further articles providing related information. Students have a quick connection to more information, explanation, or description when they click on a link. Unlike a Google search which can find unrelated sites that simply match the search words, these links lead to information directly connected to the topic.
  • Copyright-Free: The majority of Wikipedia content is free of copyright restrictions, allowing legal use of the information for anyone. In the classroom, as always, the concept of plagiarism should be thoroughly addressed. Whatever reference tool students use, they must learn the skill of summarizing facts and changing resource text into their own words.
  • Reliability: As a result of the open, collaborative nature of the encyclopedia, any errors and inaccuracies are usually quickly corrected. It is estimated that there are approximately 100 000 regular, active contributors to Wikipedia.
  • Critical thinking: Before using any online tool, students must be proficient in questioning the authorship of a website and the accuracy of the information it contains. Whether they are using Wikipedia, another reference tool, or a search engine, students should always look for the source of the information and assess its validity. Being cautious, careful, and questioning is an essential skill for anyone before venturing on the web.
  • Free: Many schools do not have the budget to subscribe to online encyclopedias. Wikipedia is a free alternative.
  • Current: Due to the collaborative nature of Wikipedia, users are constantly updating the content. Anyone can edit the articles, so revisions and new information can be added instantly.

Use Caution

  • Accuracy: Not everything in Wikipedia is correct. Articles are not necessarily written by scholars or are peer reviewed, as would be the case in academic journals. Any facts taken from Wikipedia should be checked.
  • Not for primary research: Ensure that students understand that Wikipedia is a secondary source of information. Ideally primary sources – documents that are the original source of information about a topic – should be used. For example, historical primary sources are written by someone who was present at the event. Scientific primary sources are written by the scientists performing the studies. Unfortunately, these sources are often written for an intended audience beyond secondary school. Younger students will have difficulty reading and understanding these types of research.
  • Multiple sources: Students should always be wary of a single source of information in any media, whether it in on the Internet, in print, radio, or television. For any research work, students should have at least two resources.
  • Not suitable for bibliographies: Most academic institutions will not accept references to Wikipedia as acceptable sources for citing. Teachers can impose the restriction on not allowing Wikipedia articles as a source, which also compels students to find other references.
  • Unknown editors: Due to its open nature, vandalism and inaccuracies have occurred. Wikipedia has instituted safeguards – volunteer administrators who can delete and block inappropriate content as well as automated software programs that watch for problematic edits – to remove contributors who are suspected of being dangerous to children using the site. As a result, common sense must be used. But then, this is a wise policy for anyone using the Internet.

Students need to research. They also need to learn safe, sensible, and informed strategies for working online. Wikipedia is an Internet tool that allows teachers to help their students do both. As with any new endeavour, whether it is a new piece of equipment in the gym, a field trip, or a venture online, we first gather the students and explain the new project. We set the guidelines and discuss possible issues, scenarios, and anticipated problems. We help students decide how they will react to possible situations. Then, with supervision and guidance, we help our students venture into new realms of learning.

Other Articles about Teaching Internet Skills using TechnoJourney

Now the Students’ Turn: Reflecting on TechnoJourney
A Teacher Speaks Out: Yes, you should teach Internet skills!
Peer to Peer Teaching – Students Become the Teachers
Internet Tour Guide Activity
Use YouTube Videos in your Classroom
Students Love Google Maps
Review How to Sort Google Images with Your Students
Teaching Internet Skills – The Trust Test
Wikipedia in the Classroom
Bookmarking is a Basic Internet Skill that can be Complex
Metacognition and Teaching about the Internet
4 Strategies for Reviewing Internet Search Results
When Should Students Start Using the Internet?
Should you Teach Internet Skills?

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