educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

A good place to start?: Demystifying Wikipedia for students

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Wikipedia, for most, resides on the Web like a neighbor we see and interact with often, so we may be surprised to learn that this seemingly friendly presence has caused all kinds of trouble with schools. Some teachers and even a few institutions have considered banning their students’ from having a relationship with Wikipedia at all.

Banning is pretty serious. Is Wikipedia that dangerous for students?

As some of you may know, I am a teacher and writing researcher at Drexel University. I have been involved with several research projects over the past few years that try to see, basically, how well students write. Two large studies of Drexel undergrads showed us some interesting things. Let me ask you this: What writing area do you think seems to cause the biggest struggle for the thousands of students we studied? Grammar? Creating a good main idea/thesis? Organization?

Nope, nope, and nope.

We found that the most difficult challenge the students we studied came up against in their writing projects was using evidence and research. These bright students write clearly for the most part and have good ideas, but they have real trouble supporting their thoughts with evidence. This is not (just) about correct citation — “Where does that comma go again?” — but about thinking how to support claims and ideas.

This might surprise you until you really think about it, because making a good evidence-based argument is very difficult, and where are good models in our culture for students? Advertising? (“Wear these shoes and you’ll jump higher and people will like you!”) Political campaigns? (I don’t need to say much here, do I?) Marriages? (Perhaps the true hotbed of non-evidence-based argumentation in human history: To quote the dad in A Christmas Story, “You used up all the glue…on purpose!”)

When students Google just about anything, Wikipedia pops up first. It’s just so easy to use to fill in that little research requirement part of a paper. So teachers can ban students from citing it, but in doing so, have they taught them a darn thing about why and how it works?

They need to see that it’s a wiki, which means people can edit and change information on it. Yet all information has some kind of gatekeeper, and they also need to understand that Wikipedia has some remarkable editorial controls built in. As a teacher, I wondered how I could have students think hard about Wikipedia so it just wasn’t forbidden fruit. Working with fellow teachers Andrew McCann and Dan Driscoll, we developed some assignments to try to help students do just that.

First, we asked students to search Wikipedia and find something worth knowing about that is not on the site. This turns out to be incredibly difficult, because Wikipedia has marvelous scope. Try it some time. If they can’t find something, and most don’t, then their task is to look at a Wikipedia entry about something they know a lot about and evaluate how accurate and comprehensive it is. Is there anything they would add or change?

However, if they did find some gap, something not on the site, they could write up, just for our class, a “stub” of a Wikipedia entry. This was a good experience. But here’s what’s cool: If they desired, they could create a Wikipedia account and, for real, try to add their entry. For instance, this Wikipedia entry, about the specific building that served as the U.S. “Capital for a Day” during the War of 1812, was created by a student in my class who happened to live near Brookeville: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brookeville_Academy. This student added a little piece to the knowledge of the world as represented by Wikipedia.

Students learned a lot from this experience, but perhaps the most remarkable thing was an awareness of how Wikipedia’s gatekeeping function operates. Above all Wikipedia entries is a little “View History” link. You probably never clicked on it, but that “History” provides a record of the commentary about that article by Wikipedia’s editors and contributors. I knew Wikipedia had a massive, vigilant network of editors, (check out this great article by writer Marshall Poe, which describes his efforts to create his own entry on Wikipedia), but even I was shocked at how quickly editors began checking in on, for instance, the Brookeville Academy entry. Within hours, there was a conversation about the validity of this entry and what it needed to be officially published.

So it comes down to not being afraid of Wikipedia or frustrated with it, but, instead, taking a critical look at how it works and maybe even getting involved ourselves.

As I teacher, I don’t ban Wikipedia. Despite its vast controls, it is still an open wiki, so I don’t want to see direct references to Wikipedia in student papers. But where else can you easily go for the remarkable neutrality that Wikipedia represents on so many topics? Why can’t students read a Wikipedia page and use it to move into further research, perhaps encouraged by Wikipedia’s normally pretty expansive list of references for many entries? In fact, after we’ve talked it over, I encourage them to use it as one of many places they could get or build on a good idea.

Because I think Wikipedia can be a great place to get started, but you just don’t want to end there. If we understand that, the digital natives and their teachers will get along just fine.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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4 Responses to “A good place to start?: Demystifying Wikipedia for students”

  1. Still trying to get that “Scott Warnock” stub to stick.

    There are so many interesting things about Wikipedia as a resource and as a massive collaborative project.

    I was really surprised to see how much was being developed in terms of resources and documentation… about resolving disputes, citing sources (something that would surprise a lot of anti-Wikipedists who haven’t looked very closely at it), and the three “Core Content Policies”: neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Core_content_policies

  2. This sounds like a great approach. As one of the only people I’ve known who actually edits Wikipedia, I’ve long had the impression that few people actually know how it works, especially not the professors I had in college.

    There seemed to be an idea that “anyone can just put whatever they want there, so it’s no good.” But I used Wikipedia to find the information I wanted to use, then I checked its citations for confirmation and relevant quotes. Occasionally, I found that the Wikipedia article’s source did not actually contain the information the article claimed, so I changed it.

  3. When are we going to get more wrestling articles or even better, wrestling fundraising articles?

  4. I’ve been using a service lately called Udini – which is from the ProQuest family. I am finding that it helps go beyond typical search because it has a ton of newspaper and journals … far from Wikipedia. Some articles are free, some paid though. But worth it if there is a really big project.

    http://udini.proquest.com

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