Wikipedia is the best. It is the world’s go-to source when someone wants to know something. Anything, really. Hey, didn’t I see Dave Matthews on TV in a Where The Red Fern Grows movie? Yep, that was him. And what did the crew working on the movie Jaws name the mechanical shark? Why they called him Bruce, of course, named after Spielberg’s lawyer. Wikipedia is a bar-trivia dream, but it also represents the basic facets of education: Wikipedia represents the desire to learn and a community coming together to contribute and share knowledge. So how come Wikipedia is often persona-non-grata in the classroom?
When Wikipedia was in its infancy and I stumbled across it for the first time, I didn’t know what it was, nor did I bother to evaluate it properly. All I knew was that it had all the info I needed for a paper I was writing. Paper done – source: Wikipedia! I handed it in, and my professor quickly played the role of Gandalf – “You shall not pass!”. Evidently I had committed a grave academic sin; I had cited Wikipedia. This was not a scholarly source; this was not a proper academic citation; etc. Both good points, and my kindly professor allowed me to do my paper over again. What I soon discovered was that all of the information in my original paper WAS accurate – I had just gotten it from a bogus source. But everything I had from Wikipedia was in fact, true. Corroboration with scholarly journals verified it. I never sourced Wikipedia again, but the way I prepared for papers changed on that day: I always began my research by reading on Wikipedia to gain a solid sense of understanding, and then I found the scholarly sources.
I was in college at that point, and I had made the Wikipedia mistake. Of course our K-12 students will make similar mistakes when sourcing, too. But Wikipedia has gotten a bad rap – uttering the word Wikipedia in schools is like uttering he-who-must-not-be-named in the Harry Potter universe. We shouldn’t be scaring kids away from Wikipedia like its some monster in the attic. We should embrace and cherish Wikipedia, because it represents the foundations of education (knowledge! sharing! collaboration!) and the thirst for life-long learning. And let’s be real – if students are not going to Wikipedia, they are probably heading to Yahoo Questions or a random About.com page instead. And really, which is really worse in the situation?
I would recommend leveraging Wikipedia to your advantage in the classroom. Encourage students to use it, because when they aren’t in your classroom they will use it anyway. But how can you use it while still stressing that Wikipedia isn’t proper academic sourcing material? Try these ideas:
1. Use Wikipedia as the Starting Line – Wikipedia offers great summaries, and it’s almost as accurate as Britannica. Students increase their subject knowledge, and then use the sources (books, articles, websites) at the bottom of the Wikipedia page to jump-start their research.
2. Check for Accuracy and Contribute – Worried that a Wikipedia article isn’t accurate? Have your students comb through it and look for errors. Find something inaccurate? Create an account and fix it. Congrats; you’ve just contributed to society in a meaningful way! Even if something isn’t wrong, add to the communal knowledge by adding something that isn’t already there.
3. Revel in Wikipedia’s Awesomeness – Seriously, how cool is Wikipedia? It’s a GLOBAL COLLECTION of communal knowledge. Our forefathers would have happily freaked out if they saw how democratically amazing it all is. Express how powerful the idea of shared knowledge is – and how it can aslo serve as a possible call for political revolution.
4. Create a Class Wiki – Not satisfied with Wikipedia because in the end you don’t really know who the author is? Use something like Blogger, Wikispaces or WordPress and have your class create their own bank of shared knowledge. You know who the authors are and where they are getting their sources – soon you will have a term’s worth of students teaching students. How cool is that?