by Katie Rybakova
Teachers often scoff when they hear the term Wikipedia. It’s a term that is connected with many opinions, some of which are as hard hitting as bias, falsity, and even plagiarism, while others a softer idea of laziness, a “cope out” from “actual” research. When I present on Wikipedia, I ask, after the usual grumbles about Wikipedia, if the audience members use Wikipedia themselves. A resounding yes—they won’t use it in the classroom, they won’t teach it, they go so far as to nix it from any research-driven classroom activity, and yet, often use it as one of the first sources for their own research. These are researchers, professors, secondary school teachers; I remember how my own teachers would swear against us using Wikipedia as a source (of course, we did anyway), but to continue to have this opinion in the 21st century?
I wanted to look into this problem. I spent countless hours Googling Wikipedia, but often was left surprised at how little attention current educational research was giving this very well known website. I decided then to conduct a review of research on Wikipedia—I would collect what I could find on the site, then analyze the general consensus—are we for, in the 21st century classroom, or against, Wikipedia?
A little background—Wikipedia, a combination of “Wiki,” or a source on the Internet that can be edited by anyone on it, and encyclopedia, an area for an immense coverage of different concepts and things, went live in 2001. Within the first year of being a live site, Wikipedia went from 1,000 articles to 20,000 at the end of 2001, and by the second year, hosted 100,000 articles just in its English version (Rosenweig, 2006). The growth of the site sparked the growth of students in the classroom using it as a source for research. In 2006, the Alexa traffic rankings placed Wikipedia at number eighteen out of all sources on the web, above New York Times Online, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Library of Congress (Rosenweig). It continues to be the lead hit on most Google searches on various concepts.
It is clear how this connects to the classroom—should we, as teachers, or should we not, allow students to use it as a source? Could it be used for other activities? In addition to the practical usage of Wikipedia, there is also an underlying political one—digital texts and digitalization of information in general has been the topic of mandates continuously since No Child Left Behind (Department of Education, 2013). The Race to the Top Initiative continues to emphasize the uses of technology inside the classroom and the professional development of teachers to do so in its statues as well (Department of Education, 2013). Essentially, though, or, if you will, on a societal level, it is clear that the shape and functioning of texts differs from the traditional sense of composition, and the distribution of writing no longer rests in the hands of a press (Wysocki, 2009). The most important variable, especially for educators in the classroom today, is the growing need for fine-tuning information literacy and research skills, helping students become critical consumers (Kniffel, 2008).
What, then, is the issue? Of course, because any registered user of Wikipedia can edit the site, many educators see Wikipedia as an unreliable source of information that students use. Scholarship shows the continuing argument amongst academia regarding Wikipedia as a research tool (Eijkman, 2010).
What I did was find 55 articles on Wikipedia. I used JSTOR, ERIC, and Google Scholar using the keyword Wikipedia. All of the articles that are included in this review of research (34) were published at the earliest in 2005, and at the latest in 2012. This gap in research from 2001 to 2005 can be explained, perhaps, by the growth of Wikipedia as an online research source.
Essentially, the majority of articles that accepted Wikipedia as a source in the classroom were from the field of humanities and social science, namely education related articles (33% of education articles accepted Wikipedia into the classroom). 33% of the articles that wrote a scathing prohibition of Wikipedia were education articles, while the resounding majority were articles from the hard sciences. In general, 24 out of the 34 articles were in favor of using Wikipedia in the classroom.
Statistics aside, what was most interesting to me was the reasoning behind the choices of acceptance versus prohibition. The negative reactions to Wikipedia stemmed from the obvious—Wikipedia is unreliable because it is being updated by Joe Shmo, Wikipedia has caused negative experiences with students plagiarizing or submitting poor work, and a general “easy way out” for students, a general consensus across all of the articles that prohibited Wikipedia from the classroom. It was interesting, though to see what the articles that suggested teachers utilize Wikipedia in the classroom suggested. Generally speaking, there was an overall positive experience with using Wikipedia. Because of its popularity, most teachers and authors acknowledged that students would, whether prohibited or not, use Wikipedia as a source when researching. Some articles even justified the accuracy and completeness of Wikipedia sources. Most suggested Wikipedia be allowed as a starting point for research; a use of explaining critical consumerism to students in this digital age. Research skills and information literacy skills were used to identify specific concepts that could be taught using Wikipedia in the classroom.
The research I did boils down to this—if we do want to use, as teachers, Wikipedia in our classrooms, or teach pre-service teachers to use Wikipedia in their classrooms, we need to expose them to it just like we would want to expose our students to it. Yes, it’s not the only source that students should go to for information. But, it shouldn’t be something that is prohibited outright, because, if you know anything about 6th to 12th grade kids, a rule isn’t going to stop them from using it. It’s better to expose students to Wikipedia—it’s positives AND negatives—rather than keeping kids out of the loop when it comes to an important skill—critical consumerism and information literacy skills.
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