Saturday, October 18, 2008

Using Wikipedia in the Classroom

A teacher once told me Wikipedia is the McDonalds of the digital world. It suffers from being the biggest fish out there, and because of this, is the victim of misinformation and rumors. And while all of its rivals get a free pass, it continues to thrive.

This analogy didn't work for me to well (I loved Supersize Me) but I see the point. Before I even have this discussion with teachers, I get the "Wikipedia? I won't allow that in my classroom. The information is not credible." The rumors out there are too persistent to trust it.

I've wanted to say something like "are you nuts? That's the one sure-fire way to get them to use the site." I once banned kids from reading John Knowles' A Separate Peace, not because I didn't want them to read the book, but because I wanted them to. For years of offering it as a free-reading choice, I'd have vicious stares from students who felt betrayed into reading something "so boring". When it was banned, however, they had to read it. And you thought reverse psychology only stopped working at age 4.

But, to say that would be a little crass. So, here's what I generally say about it. What site do you trust? What site is beyond the need to be critical of what it says?

The reality is, as Will Richardson points out, we are having a great shift in literacy:

In the era of textbooks and printed resources, we could be pretty sure the content had been checked and edited before being published. Reading, for all its intents, was a fairly passive experience. Today, however, readers cannot assume that what they are reading has been reviewed by someone else with an eye toward truth and accuracy. The Web is now a printing press for the masses, and so readers themselves must learn to be critical consumers of the information they consider.

Thus, all sites are essentially important to the learning process, even those that are marginal in quality, for it gives students a chance to discern bias, reliability, timely information, and embedded opinion.

This is not to say Wikipedia is my resource of choice; it isn't. But it is my student's resource of choice. And therefore, as a teacher, I need to instruct them on its uses and limitations, just like I need to do for Google.

One of my favorite thinkers of education, Wesley Fryer, raises many good points (check out his blog entry for a more thorough explanation of these):

1. Have students follow up on the external links listed in the notation section
2. Have students create their own content to become part of the collaborative process
3. Teach students the proper use of quotations
4. Use it to follow breaking news
5. Use it to explore controversial issues

One teacher I had in a graduate course I taught would have added a sixth. Show how fraudulent the website is with required reading about phony experts and contrived entries, and show students examples from the website that are inaccurate. I thought this was, at least, educating them about the website, rather than straight out banning it with no explanation whatsoever. Unless she was secretly going the Separate Peace route.

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