In a recent Waikato Times article “Wikipedia a public fount of knowledge” (not available online), Ian Witten, professor in the computer science department at Waikato University, asks if Wikipedia is reliable. (His team has developed Wikipedia Miner, a toolkit for navigating and making sense of the structure and content of Wikipedia through the search and comparison of terms.) He goes on to explain some of the checks and balances that exist in this community publication including a complete editing history, and the Talk or discussion pages where potential changes to an article can be argued to some agreement. This indicates of course that much knowledge is contestable and we can see some of the same arguments happening in erudite academic publications. We also know that there is an army of Wikipedians monitoring many of the changes that occur, especially where there is a sudden increase in activity by an IP address or on a page. Because Wikipedia is a wiki, inappropriate changes can be reverted quickly. Wikipedia is also able to update changing information rapidly, something that print publications find harder to do.
An interesting piece of research by Nature (or some info here if you can’t get the subscription article) compared Wikipedia with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It found no difference in the number of serious errors in the articles it compared and only a small difference in the number of omissions and minor inaccuracies, in favour of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica disputed (PDF) the research, although Nature has defended itself and Wikipedia has also reported and responded to the study.
So can we conclude that Wikipedia is accurate? The answer would be “Not entirely” but that would be the same answer if we asked if Encyclopaedia Britannica is accurate! We can also ask if students should reference Wikipedia; however, I think that is a misleading question. Better to ask if students should reference an encyclopedia. If the answer is “No”, then that is true for both Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wikipedia in fact is at pains to point out that it is a secondary source and should not be used as if it was a primary source. It actually disallows original research material from being published on the site.
cc licensed flickr photo shared by quartermane
So what use is Wikipedia in tertiary education?
Well for a quick overview of a topic it’s great, especially when articles are well referenced and more so if there are links to primary sources online. But is that all? The answer to that is definitely “No”! Here are two examples of ways that we can promote learning.
Since many of the comments that people make concern the supposed accuracy of Wikipedia, and since we want our students to be critical thinkers, able to discern good writing from bad, able to identify the veracity of articles and have good literacy skills in an age when information presentation is changing, then let’s combine these into an exercise. Get your students to identify an appropriate article in Wikipedia and critically review it. Ask them to identify some of the primary sources cited and decide whether the Wikipedia article fairly represents the work in those sources. You can also get them to search out other primary sources that represent contrasting viewpoints to help decide if the Wikipedia article is written in a neutral tone or not. They can also make suggestions for how the article could be improved. This exercise can be extended by requiring your learners to engage with the Wikipedia community by posting specific questions in the Talk page for the article in Wikipedia and even making edits to the article itself. You may want to peer review suggested amendments first and you may decide that the best place for this is also in the Talk page. The extension allows your students to engage in authentic learning, whereby they must be able to defend their criticisms, argue and agree modifications and write in a defined style and for a public audience.
The second example concerns writing whole articles for Wikipedia and there is an excellent case study of this. Professor Jon Beasley-Murray teaches a course on Latin American literature at the University of British Columbia. He was conscious that Wikipedia had very limited information on Latin American writers and so he set his students to writing and improving the cadre of articles for their class assignment. Beasley-Murray gives an excellent account of his thinking behind this assignment and how it also grew into something much more important for his students than he originally envisaged. I should note that the primary aim of this class was to engage with a set of Latin American novels of a particular genre, rather than learning about Wikipedia. The learners evidenced this through writing for Wikipedia, something that was real-world, authentic, was contestable by others and engaged the students with new media literacy skills.
By the end of the project, his learners had contributed three new featured articles, eight new good articles and one new B-class article. It is worth pointing out that these attain this status through peer review and that less than 0.1% of articles in Wikipedia are deemed Featured Articles. His students also report (about 1/2 way down page) how it increased their learning through being in the real-world and through engaging and collaborating with others. Their articles aren’t going to sit in a dusty folder or be binned the way a traditional essay assignment would be and they know that they have contributed something worthwhile that is of use to others.
There are many other ways that academics and students can use Wikipedia to support learning and I’d be interested in hearing of other examples that people develop.