Why Wikipedia Does Belong in the Classroom

The proper place of social media in the classroom remains a mystery to most people, with Wikipedia standing as the biggest, baddest new media nemesis of them all.

Note: Earlier this month, Brian Proffitt’s post explaining Why Wikipedia Doesn’t Belong In The Classroom garnered strong reactions both pro and con. Here, guest author Jonathan Obar, PhD, like Proffitt a practicing academic, takes the opposite point of view.

In the 80s, Neil Postman wrote, “You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.” To Postman, television was a medium that privileged entertainment, whose decontextualized method of communicating the ephemeral at blazing speeds made linear argument and true learning impossible.

I find it fascinating that while educators work feverishly to incorporate YouTube, video games and other video-based technologies into classrooms, Wikipedia, a text-heavy technology that privileges old-fashioned reading and writing, still befuddles members of the academic establishment.

Wikipedia remains misunderstood because many educators have yet to recognize the distinction between Wikipedia as a tool for teaching and Wikipedia as a tool for research. Unfortunately, fear of the latter has blinded most to the possibilities of the former. I believe Wikipedia to be an effective tool for both.

Wikipedia As A Tool for Teaching

Since 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation has been working hard opening closed-minds, connecting thousands of students at more than 50 schools across the U.S., including Harvard, Yale and UC Berkeley to the Wikipedia Education Program. Thousands more have participated at top universities in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, Egypt and in more than 10 European countries. Law schools, social science, health science, engineering, psychology and humanities departments (among others) have participated. The University of Toronto’s medical school is considering having its residency program participate as part of its community outreach requirement. The Association for Psychological Science and the American Sociology Association are concurrently running their own programs and every semester we discover new professors teaching with Wikipedia on their own, happenings common to open-source projects.

Clearly the professors at these schools are overcoming what some might call new media myopia. But how and why?

Wikipedia Education Program professors incorporate Wikipedia into courses by having students collaborate with the community of Wikipedia editors (“Wikipedians”) to write course-related Wikipedia articles, replacing traditional term papers. Student preference for the Wikipedia-way has been demonstrated, and the incentives are clear:

* Similar benefits to traditional writing assignments - as students are still researching and analyzing sources, and writing-up material on course content.

- Digital literacy training. Profs now teach two-courses-in-one as students learn how to use wiki-technology, engage in wiki-culture and collaborate with a virtual social network. They will likely need to know about wikis when they graduate as wikis are everywhere these days, including the corporate world, government (heard of the CIA’s Intellipedia?) and NGOs.

- Multi-layered feedback. Professors and assistants can provide feedback and engage in debate with students, as can the community of Wikipedians. Students are thrust into an intense game of literary dodgeball considering feedback on content, style and presentation from users of varying levels of expertise on content and wikis.

- Students learn to write in an encyclopedic style. A welcome change from argumentative writing, expanding their writing abilities.

- Student favorite: Getting some exposure. In years past, the student and professor would be the only two readers of a term paper. Wikipedia articles remain online indefinitely and contribute to the information available online about course content. We’ve had students tell us they’ve used Google searches to show their grandmothers their work over Thanksgiving. Then there’s Patrick Friedel from Georgetown University who re-wrote the article on the National Democratic Party (Egypt) in fall 2010, an article that since has received more than 160,000 hits. Not bad for a term paper that would normally have ended up in the drawer or the garbage.

Taken a step further, when we introduce Wikipedia into the classroom as a teaching tool, we provide students with a space to reflect and learn about the nature of knowledge and its evolution, about the normative ideals of participatory democracy and about the role of information in societal development. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?

Wikipedia As A Tool for Research

Brian Proffitt’s article recommended against Wikipedia’s use in the classroom. His argument was straightforward and in two parts:

Argument One (paraphrased): Wikipedia content is amateurish (i.e. crowdsourced), is defined by illogical policies and a variety of indoctrinated (in some instances eccentric) editors, and as a result, shouldn’t be trusted as a reputable source for academic writing.

My response focuses not on the fact that Wikipedia is the largest collaborative project known to humankind, containing more than 4 million articles, 24 million project pages, nearly 800,000 images, a social network of 17 million users (and that’s just the English-language Wikipedia, there are 284 other Wikipedias operating in different languages), or the fact that Wikipedia is currently the sixth most popular site on the net according to Alexa, receiving 450 million+ unique hits and 6 billion+ total hits monthly according to comScore, or that Professor William Cronon, President of the American Historical Association, said last February, “I don’t believe there’s much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.”

Instead, my response to Proffitt will address an incentive for using Wikipedia as a tool for teaching (and research) – teaching our students to be informed consumers of information, or information literate.

When I teach my students about information literacy, I often begin by describing the place of debate in knowledge creation. This idea certainly isn’t new to academics; in fact it’s perhaps one of our oldest and most cherished ideals. Debate can happen in a variety of places; for example, between individuals on a Wikipedia talk page and even within one’s own mind while considering which sources to use when writing an academic paper.

Unfortunately, when students are debating which sources to work with, they must traverse a dangerous terrain. No matter where they look, there are mistakes everywhere. There is bias everywhere. There is missing information everywhere. What this means is that no source should be regarded as the source on any given topic. That includes Wikipedia and the Britannica, the popular press, and even the academic literature - I won’t bother getting into the challenges associated with annual reports, the trade press and reports released by government agencies. In addition to the landmines that we encourage our students to consider, whether we like it or not, students are going to use answers.com, Yahoo!Answers and a myriad of sites just like them.

The answer is not to ban Wikipedia. The answer is to teach students how to use sources appropriately. Teach students to be informed consumers of information. Teach them how the encyclopedia ought to be used in academic writing, as well as how to use blogs, tweets and Facebook posts. Teach them not to feel safe anywhere when it comes to our high standards. Teaching information literacy will empower our students to navigate and benefit from the greatest technology of abundance the world has ever known.

Argument Two (paraphrased): Academics do not like Wikipedia. It is often the source of plagiarism, and shouldn’t be cited in academic work.

The popularity of the Education Program and related initiatives suggests that some academics do support Wikipedia. Every semester we have to turn people away because a volunteer army can support only so many classes.

I will not claim to have the answer to the problem of plagiarism, which existed long before Wikipedia. But I say again, banning Wikipedia is not the appropriate response. My answers to the plagiarism and citation charges are the same – engagement. That’s what drives social media, that’s what should drive our teaching.

Teach students that the act of writing in any setting is defined by both form and content. I don’t let my students cite Wikipedia in their academic papers (GASP!) because I don’t believe it to be proper academic form. I don’t let them cite the Britannica or dictionary either. In an effort to shape informed consumers of information I teach them how Wikipedia should and should not be used. I agree with Proffitt when he says it’s a great place to start and a terrible place to finish. Though in some academic circles, the tide is turning.

Wikipedia remains a shining example of what has been made possible by the greatest technology of access and abundance the world has ever known. The power of the network can be intimidating. As educators we can choose to ignore our ever-changing reality or attempt to harness its power.

“Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” - words once spoken by Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales. We must teach our students to navigate the information torrent as informed consumers, and recognize how user content-generation, especially through interactive Web 2.0 technologies, can lead to tremendous active-learning outcomes. In doing so, we will be offering our students the benefits of a 21st-century education, and preparing them for success in the ever-changing brave new world that awaits them outside the university walls.

Jonathan Obar, PhD is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University, and Associate Director of the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law. He also works as a research fellow in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. He continues to volunteer as a member of the Wikipedia Education Program, which he joined in fall 2010.



Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.