It’s that time of year when high school seniors in many districts are buckling down to complete their senior research projects. I’ve been listening in at every opportunity to teachers sharing their thoughts, their questions, their cautions, and their policies concerning student use of Wikipedia as a resource.
My favorite discussion so far has been one led by CyberEnglish teacher Ted Nellen during November’s NCTE ACE workshop in NYC. One of the teachers in the session cited Wikipedia as being only 40% accurate. Ted responded by asking the accuracy rate of, for example, the average history textbook (which by the way, continue to be less than engaging for our students). And the conversation opened up…and continued on into the NCTE Talkies listserv…and on into Ted’s blog post Yes, Use Wikipedia. I’m taking the liberty of copying from the heart of the post:
“wikipedia is merely the next iteration in information sharing. following the evolution of information sharing, we had oral, then written and now digital. all information was controlled by an elder, perhaps, and shared orally. the information shared was of course edited by the giver. churches evolved as the main information sharer. then with gutenberg, the information sharer was passed onto publishers. they, too, edited and selected what was shared. today we have the internet and information is shared in a more democratic manner and perhaps chaotic manner. yet the information gets batted about and sifted through so that we should arrive at pure information, unedited and free. this of course scares lots of people who are used to getting information from print sources or from people who own these print sources. so it makes sense that something like wikipedia scares people cause they have been told to fear it or fear it cause it is wresting the distribution of information from them and giving it to the people.
of course we should use wikipedia as a resource. i’m not quite sure why we would not.
it is democratic. it is created by the people who do know more about the topic than others. it is public, it is peer reviewed, and it is edited constantly. sure it goes through weird times but it is fixed very quickly. “
From the NCTE Talkies, Carla Beard, who gave several highly entertaining NCTE workshop presentations on student use of wikis, shared that, of course there is a need to teach students to question Wikipedia entries and to corroborate sources – but then, I think we need to teach students to question and corroborate any resource! Carla likes “to pull up articles where Wikipedia itself asks for citation of information.” Great way to model information literacy strategies!
Another NCTE colleague (and mentor), Nancy Patterson shared in the Talkies discussion that she directs her graduate students to Wikipedia because it is “often a great place to start, especially if they don’t know anything about a topic or person.”
After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal by Lee Gomes – Forget the Articles, Best Wikipedia Read Is Its Discussions – I now check on the Discussion tab too and can see why he finds this feature of Wikipedia so fascinating. Just reading through the discussions for the Potato entry was engaging and informative – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Potato. Maybe we should encourage students to start with Wikipedia discussions before venturing on to read the articles.
For those students who are truly passionate about the topic they’ve chosen for their senior project, the possibility of themselves becoming a “wikipedian” on their topic might encourage more scholarly research and thoughtful writing. I’m thinking about a senior at Florin High School who shared with me that her topic – and passion – was floral design. Out of curiosity, I searched “floral design” and found that Wikipedia is asking for contributions – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floral_design. Sounds like a great opportunity for students to go public with their research!
And my favorite resource for introducing teachers and students to the whole concept of a wiki is still Lee Lefever’s Common Craft video Wikis in Plain English :-).