Many of us already use Wikipedia and its sister projects for day-to-day research, and some of us even contribute. It’s clear that the kind of collaborative writing that goes on inside that big jigsaw globe is quite compatible with classroom learning. So why is this great project still virtually unheard of by the faculty? What can we do about it?
Read on for my thoughts on this topic…
For those of you who think Wikipedia is a corny title for just another website that claims to be useful, I think an introduction is appropriate. (For those of you know already know the ins and outs of Wikipedia, just skip this section. I’ll bore you to death.)
Wikipedia is a completely free encyclopedia that you can find at wikipedia.org. When I say it’s completely free, I don’t just mean that it’s free of charge. No company actually owns the 1.3 million-plus articles in over 150 languages – legally speaking, it’s run by a non-profit based in Florida, with half of its Board of Trustees being elected officials. (Elected by the Wikipedians at-large, using the state-of-the-art wiki system, so there aren’t any hanging chads.)
But here’s the real beef: anyone can edit almost any page at any time. (Find out how.) You don’t have to worry about “breaking” the site, or editing a page without permission, or even creating an account with them – you can edit anonymously.
So how’s this thing work?! Glad you asked. With almost 40,000 registered contributors worldwide (not to mention the uncountable masses who aren’t registered), barely any change to the site goes unnoticed. So before you decide to go on a vandalism spree and get your IP address blocked, know that everyone is working to create the best reference possible.
Wikipedia is an interesting mix of democracy, anarchy, and benevolent dictatorship. On any given day, there are probably 10-20 votes going on in English alone. A hoarde of administrators (sysops) and other welldoers patrolls the Recent Changes page to deal with any troublemakers, and an Arbitration Committee is there to settle any disputes with binding decisions. But one of the main principles of editing Wikipedia is to be bold in editing pages. You don’t ask for permission to edit something; you Just Do It™.
My brief description of Wikipedia (yes, that was brief) clearly doesn’t do the project justice. Really, the best way to understand Wikipedia is to start using it. Before you know it, you’ll be an addicted editor – and this time, the addition will be a good one: you’ll help spread knowledge throughout the world, for free.
And before I go on, I should note that I am an administrator (sysop) for the Vietnamese-language edition of Wikipedia, and for a few smaller companion projects. My responsibilities as a (volunteer) sysop include promoting the site in various venues, including here at my blog – where else?
When I first mentioned Wikipedia to my counselor – believe it or not, Wikipedia looks great on a college résumé – she gave me a weird stare. She still can’t pronounce the site’s wacky name. (By the way, wiki in Hawaiian means “quick,” as in quick editing.)
I suppose that most educators simply don’t know about Wikipedia and its unique style of collaboration. After all, when most teachers want a reference, they either turn to the textbook, or they take the librarian’s advice and search one of the databases that the school subscribes to. (More on that later.)
Even when I gave Mr. Hoar a little peak at the site during Computer Science class last year, the only response he gave was “WikiWiki,” in the amused, high-pitched tone of voice of his that made me chuckle inside.
Are you sure?
For those teachers that do know of Wikipedia, the main obstacle to acceptance is probably the lack of a formalized fact-checking mechanism. In my day-to-day research, in fact, I treat Wikipedia the same way I treat the rest of the Internet: for technical, objective subjects, I tend to trust it more, and for the more subjective topics, the ones that lend to revisionism, I like to double-check with common sense a bit, and with my ages-old copy of Grolier’s Encyclopedia of Knowledge. (It’s too bad they discontinued that series; the encyclopedia was very high-quality.)
This is the kind of things that drive librarians nuts. Though librarians like to think of themselves as “media coordinators” or somesuch, most haven’t actually embraced the Internet as a legitimate source of information. They subscribe to more “online” databases than you’d ever want to visit, they have the IT department censor the Web like you wouldn’t believe, and they generally treat the Web like a necessary evil.
I completely understand why they evengelize the subscription databases so much; it is part of our tuition, after all. But these companies can’t possibly create relevant material the same way that dynamic sites like Wikipedia can.
So what do they think about Wikipedia?
I’ve yet to check with Ms. Conlon on her thoughts of Wikipedia (I should), but my guess is that she’d be appalled by the apparent lack of accountability.
Several months ago, a similar situation occured, with possibly the same site. A group of Wikipedian bloggers organized themselves to combat this site by “googlebombing” Google. They leveraged the collective power of their blogs, linking to the Wikipedia article on Jew to raise that article above the anti-Semitic site’s entry.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s NPOV entry has fallen into second place. Not only that, but the Wikipedia Signpost now reports that a Neo-Nazi group is now attempting to push their cause from within Wikipedia. They are apparently trying to keep certain articles that support their POV, and Wikipedians are on the lookout for additional trouble.
The dynamic nature of Wikipedia that has contributed so much to its success can be a never-ending source of anxiety. Educators by their profession love stability – with the notable exception of Mr. Ott.
[Update] Wow. That was fast: Wikipedia’s article is again on top, and the first anti-Semitic site that appears is 4-5 places down now.
Back to the classroom
I believe that Wikipedia has the potential to enrich classroom learning immensely. The most obvious department to benefit from such a comprehensive resource is the Social Studies Dept. In fact, the World Affairs Council has used Wikipedia articles for quite a while. (Though that’s not saying much: WACkos tend to come up with various statutes and certain amendments on the fly, with complete disregard for actual history. So the credibility of sources doesn’t really matter. But I digress.)
But other subjects can benefit as well. Compared to other mainstream references, Wikipedia has unparalleled coverage of mathematics, physics, and other highly-technical fields, even if the coverage is sometimes a little too technical. (You can help fix that by explaining things better.)
I actually think that the Foreign Language Dept. would stand to gain the most from working with Wikipedia. Think about it: the teacher can have each student translate an article of their choice (200 words or more) from the English-language edition to, say, Spanish, where the article hasn’t been started yet. After a week, the students can come back to the article, hopefully find that things are still in good shape, tweak the page a bit, and submit it to the teacher – the URL of the most recently reviewed version would suffice.
It’s like watching a plant grow for science class back in first grade.
Many colleges already use the site as a sort of proving grounds for students: they write articles, then submit them for review. Since others can freely make changes, students have the benefit of peer review, which is well-regarded in academic circles.
Besides serving as a reputable resource for WAC, Wikipedia could integrate well into other school activities.
Imagine a “Wikipedians club” of some sort. They get together every week to organize projects (campaigns, if you’re a DND nut) for their own little group of contributors. The club cooperates with the various foreign language clubs, like say, Spanish. The Wikipedians can go to the Spaniards if they need help with translating a particularly tricky passage, and the Spaniards can go to the Wikipedians if they need help translating a particularly obscure word.
That sounded boring didn’t it? The fact is, we can do whatever we want with the possibilities that Wikipedia offers us. We just need to get started. I’m sure you’ve got better ideas by now; post them here or see me in person about it. I’d love to hear from St. X students about this.
Tell your teacher about the site and have them actually visit them, for starters. Convince them that it’s alright to use Wikipedia as a source for school papers. Find out what they’re most interested in – specifically – and find really cool stuff about that from Wikipedia.
Once you’re done with that, get comfy and start wikiing!