Wikipedia: Should You Use It In Your Classroom?

September 25th, 2012 No Comments Other


Jonathan Obar Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, recently wrote an article about Wikipedia and its role in the educational process. As an advocate for giving the largest online encyclopedia in the world a role in his classroom, the article was written as a direct response to another article written a week earlier by Brian Proffitt, a professor who denounced Wikipedia as having any place in his classroom. Both articles have sparked a lot of heated debate among academics.

So is the digital library of knowledge a help or hindrance in a college setting?

Wikipedia is the biggest knowledge-gathering project humankind has ever embarked on. When looking at the number of users, editors, and collaborators to the online encyclopedia, the statistics are staggering. There is an obvious philosophical question to ask: How is it that a textbook or journal, written by a select few people, can somehow produce content that is superior to a project that offers ALL of humanity a chance to critique, change, update, and/or edit?

The slow adjustment to technology in the classroom points to a firmly ingrained elitist mentality that suggests only certain qualified individuals should be able to share their expertise with the world in an authoritative way.

It is scrutinized by millions of people every day. While the risk of erroneous information is higher, there is also the opportunity for accountability.  Wikipedia editors continually monitor the information, deleting facts that aren’t accurately sourced. Printed encyclopedias on the other hand, are expensive to update, offering no chance to quickly change a fact should it be found untrue. Wikipedia is not subject to the same problem.

Students in University settings are continually encouraged to use multiple sources, scrutinize information, and test the limits of human knowledge. While Wikipedia should never be the only source for citing facts, it does present an opportunity for students to learn how to read a document critically, assessing the evidence of the information presented.

Bias is everywhere, even in printed books, journals, and reports. Wikipedia is not the only source of erroneous information. Unfortunately, the slow adjustment to technology in the classroom points to a firmly ingrained elitist mentality that suggests only certain qualified individuals should be able to share their expertise with the world in an authoritative way.

Wikipedia has leveled the playing field by opening up the doors of human knowledge to the world.

Collaborate and Share

Wikipedia also offers students the opportunity to share their research with the online community. The Wikipedia Education program gives young adults in the classroom a chance to write articles for Wikipedia in place of traditional term papers. The benefits of this program are numerous.

  • Students are motivated by the opportunity to have their work showcased for potentially millions of viewers. The incentive to write well increases when he or she knows the paper will be scrutinized by Wikipedia’s editors and Internet viewers looking for information.
  • It provides a sense of global community, as students do their part in contributing to the pool of human knowledge, all the while learning critical skills for their own career.
  • Wikipedia provides a philosophical platform to discuss human knowledge as a dynamic and ever-evolving organism. It affects how they look at history and the future.
  • Though staunch opponents to Wikipedia in the classroom cite the prolific amount of plagiarism on its pages, the world of technology has made it easier than ever to discover a plagiarized article. It only takes 10 seconds in a program like Copyscape to discover if text has been copied. Students who know that their work will go up on Wikipedia, will want to be more careful when they know the world will be watching.

Jonathan aptly pointed out that educators are afraid to incorporate Wikipedia in the classroom because they fail to see the difference between Wikipedia as a tool for research and collaboration, rather than as a tool for teaching. No one single source should ever be the foundation for covering the width and breadth of a topic, but to ignore Wikipedia as a valuable tool because of this fear is short-sighted at best, and tragic at its worst.

Using Wikipedia as a tool in the classroom carries enormous benefit to students and the global community at large. As a platform for information, a starting point for research, and a place to discuss the philosophy of knowledge, Wikipedia should be an essential part of classroom life.

The question is: Why is it taking so long for brilliant minds to realize the potential of the world’s largest online encyclopedia?


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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