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April 14, 2011 / Sarah Ludwig

Wikipedia is a good resource, but you need to know how to use it

I am so pleased with how our Wikipedia unit turned out. I wanted to share what happened on the last day of the project: the students debated Wikipedia and then reflected on the entire process.

At the end of the two-week unit, the students had to write about Wikipedia in light of all that they had learned. I asked them three questions:

1. Will you use Wikipedia?

2. If so, how will you use it? If not, why not?

3. If so, what will you use it for?

Overall, 18 students answered “yes” to question 1 and six students answered “no.”

Admittedly, I was pleased with this, especially when the students contributed details like the following:

Yes I will use Wikipedia to research. …  If I did use Wikipedia, I would probably use more than one of the external links. I will never use an article that has any flags on it. I will use it for all kinds of research, but I would make sure I have at least one other site.

I would use Wikipedia. However, I would use other sites as well to see if the information was correct. I would also check what sources the article has used or if it was flagged. I would use it for any facts I would need. It is important to see if the article is biased, too. Wikipedia is a good resource, but you need to know how to use it.

The two preceding quotes were from one class, where the results of their “yes or no” poll were:

The other class was split far more evenly down the middle:

And interestingly, in this class, the students who said that they would not use Wikipedia (five out of 11) had some pretty unsophisticated ideas about why they wouldn’t use it:

I will not use Wikipedia because false information may end up in an article that I research.

I will not use Wikipedia because some of the information is false. People may have changed it and [it] may not be correct. Also even though Wikipedia has staff that edit pages and supervise they might not find all errors. If I did use Wikipedia I would use it only for specific subjects that I can research if the material is correct.

I will only use Wikipedia as a last resort because of how some articles have lies.

I find it interesting that those who said they would not use Wikipedia were focused almost entirely on the “lies” aspect of the site, which is certainly not a word that I used in my lesson. I speculate that these opinions were mostly based on a predetermined idea about Wikipedia; this may be the case for the “I would use it” crowd, too, though those students tended to use much more of the rhetoric I used in my lesson.

Another theory is that when the two groups were debating, Class #1 spent much more time debating a variety of points (authority, bias, oversight, using other websites as accuracy checks)  while Class #2 seemed much more focused on the ability of users to edit articles and the fact that it would be impossible for an editor to catch ever single error or act of vandalism. We did not, sadly, get into the fact that there are errors in printed materials as well, and though it was discussed, the students seemed more focused on errors in Wikipedia articles than on the errors they know are on other websites. Which brings me back to the idea that students have a lot of preconceived notions about Wikipedia. One even wrote:

I am not going to use Wikipedia. Even before this assignment, I have never liked using it. Sometimes when I search for things, the articles are really long with a lot of things that aren’t necessary to know, or not related to my search.

These points, of course, completely ignore everything we were discussing.

On the whole, I am extremely pleased with how much the students took in. Even though I’m biased (Wikipedia is my first go-to resource), what I wanted the students to come out of the lesson with was the understanding that they always need to do more than take information as face value. And I believe that the majority of them did so. When I saw the word “authority” in one of their reflection pieces, I almost cried! I would definitely do this lesson again. Please feel free to try it with your own students, and let me know how it goes!

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