Saturday, December 02, 2006

Should Wikipedia be used in school?

A funny thing happens when you mention Wikipedia in schools. Some teachers stare at you blankly while trying to place the origin of that strange word you just used. Other teachers start shifting from foot to foot, until they explode in a tirade professing that any responsible teacher would keep their students far away from that unreliable source. Still others nonchalantly shift away from the conversation, not wanting to admit that they didn't realize Wikipedia wasn't just an ordinary encyclopedia after all.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. But not by much. I conducted an informal survey at my own school. Of the paltry 24 responses I received from my little query: 4 (17%) teachers sheepishly asked what Wikipedia was (introduction), 13 (54%) said Wikipedia should not be acceptable as a credible source, 3 (13%) said they would allow students to cite Wikipedia, and another 4 (17%) said they would allow it as a source, but not as a sole source.

Perhaps one of the most colorful responses I received comes, not surprisingly, from an art teacher.
This sounds like the perfect resource! I could make it say anything I wanted, anytime I wanted! (Sort of like the painter vs. the photographer. The painter can change the season with a brush stoke and a color change, depending on his mood. The photographer has to be a slave for reality and wait for real time to change the season.)

Interestingly, one might reasonably argue that technology is even changing the way photographers can capture and manipulate reality. But I digress...

The Wikipedia debate is not new. In a
July 2005 blog, Andy Carver acknowledges educators' "hostility" towards the resource, although he describes how "Wikipedia's flaws actually make it an ideal learning tool for students." In fact, Wikipedia surely embraces Carver's ideas, as these same ideas are quoted in Wikipedia's Schools' FAQ. Wikipedia never claimed to be valid. The disclaimer on the bottom of every page makes this quite clear. Sure, anyone can edit a wiki, and write that the moon truly is made of cheese. Although, in a heavily disputed study, Nature "suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule" as it found natural science entries in Wikipedia to rival those in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Whatever your stance, we all must agree that the wiki is not going away. So, as with many emerging technologies, we must find ways to use it as an educational opportunity.

chael Eakes weighs in on the debate,
There is no guarantee of quality for any given Wikipedia article. But more importantly, Wikipedia remains incredibly useful as an initial resource that provides a contextual framework for more exhaustive research.

Perhaps those four teachers had the right idea. Wikipedia is a valuable source, but should not be relied upon as an only source.

Andy Carvin takes it a step further in March 2006,

Students and teachers should debate Wikipedi
a and even contribute to it; remember, it's a work-in-progress, not a finished body of work. But all too often, the debate over Wikipedia's merits is left among the educators only, with students left out of the conversation and operating on a simple directive: don't use it. By ignoring Wikipedia rather than teaching critical, responsible uses of it, schools are practically inviting students to edit Wikipedia at their own peril. We should be preparing students for constructive participation in the Read/Write Web; otherwise it might as well be the Read/Vandalize Web.

Andy Carvin did his own survey of educators and found little consensus among educators when it came to Wikipedia.

Opinions abound on Wikipedia's usefulness in schools. I personally agree that Wikipedia is a useful springboard to further research, and an opportunity to really teach media literacy and fact validation techniques. In the world that awaits our student's tomorrows, I cannot think of two more valuable lessons for our kids.

More blogposts tackling Wikipedia : Infinite Thinking Machine

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