Wikipedia has a bad reputation among many educators. As a source of information often written by non-specialists how can it meet the same standards as traditional encyclopedias, books, and peer-reviewed articles?
The short answer is: it can’t. It’s not the same kind of source as peer reviewed materials. Entries in Wikipedia are constantly reviewed, edited, updated, and discussed by sometimes hundreds of people (in the case of controversial topics) or just a few (in the case of more specialized topics). Some of those involved are professionals, some are not. Some changes are accurate, some are not.
So in the interest of not simply telling your students to avoidWikipedia and having them ignore you, this post suggests an exercise that will teach your students to evaluate the site while helping them to improve it.
Entries and Discussion Pages
The majority of entries (topic pages such as “atom,” “George Washington,” or “literary technique”), have two sections—the public entry and the discussion page. The public entry is the first page you reach after searching a topic. It contains the description, discussion, and explanations about the topic and often includes diagrams or pictures. All versions of the public entry are archived, so when changes are made, the old version is still available.
The discussion page is the place where contributors discuss issues in the article. Issues can include questions of reliability, fairness in representation of perspective, and connections between articles. Various perspectives are debated until an agreement is reached. Because all changes are archived, if a change is made that is not compliant with Wikipedia’s policies the original can be retrieved.
Since pages must be edited by users and editors, it can happen that only biased or inaccurate changes to the most trafficked entries, or the most blatantly wrong data, are corrected quickly. So how do we teach our students to evaluate this information source? First, by making them aware of how the entries are written and the standards to which they are held.
Policies of Wikipedia
Among Wikipedia’s many policies are the three core content policies:
When entries do not meet these policies, contributors and editors are asked to make changes as quickly as possible.
We can teach our students to evaluate this, and other web sources, by directly engaging with the site and its materials in the context of our classes. The goals of the following exercise are twofold. First, teaching students that critical evaluation of the site (and really, much of the material available online) is crucial. Second, the exercise turns the site into a collaborative exercise in knowledge production. It also has the added benefit of producing an accurate entry that others can rely on.
So what do we do? First, start with a little research. Search the website for topics in your course that you would like students to learn by the end of the semester. Choose key terms (i.e., literacy or modernism), people (i.e., Noam Chomsky), dates/time periods (i.e., 12th century or 1978), or places (i.e., Guiyang or Hyderabad). Remember, the site works like an encyclopedia so phrases or technical jargon may not appear.
Next, assess the entry. A well-written, well-cited entry may be less instructive to the students than a very inaccurate entry. However, a topic with subtle inaccuracies or an extensive discussion page will also provide an important learning opportunity for your students.
In general, you are looking for entries and/or topics that will allow your students to see a range of quality of both entries and discussion. Entries on the site range from complete, well written, verifiable articles down to “stubs” (minimal and/or incomplete entries). By using the full range in your class, students will discover that the site is not really a coherent whole. Each entry stands alone and must be evaluated as such.
Once you’ve identified a few entries, you may want to create a handout with some of Wikipedia’s policies from above. Since the final goal of the assignment is to create a “publishable” entry, students’ submissions to you should meet these criteria. This also has the additional benefit of educating your students to the goals of the site which will help them evaluate this and other online sources—all sites are not equivalent!
Next, divide your students into groups and assign one entry per group. Their task is to assess the entry, evaluate the writing (for POV, validity, and verifiability) and then write a new (or revised) entry. In order to complete the assignment, students will need to use library materials in the form of books or journals. They will read any sources already cited in the entry, assess their inclusion, and add new sources (cited correctly) as necessary.
While you are probably their best resource to contextualize their entry (maybe in course materials or lectures), they will be responsible for filling in the gaps, making connections between course materials, and learning that all online sources must, for university purposes, be evaluated against published and/or peer-reviewed material.
At the end of the semester, evaluate the entry:
- Is the information conveyed in a “neutral point of view?”
- Is the entry verifiable—did they provide citations for all evidence presented?
- Is there accurate evidence for all claims?
- Did they cover any nuance or disagreement in the topic and were they fair to all sides?
It may also be a good idea to end the project by having student groups present on what they found in terms of accuracy, how they improved the site, and what they now think about the site. This way, the students are able to see the full range of entries and can then discuss how what they learned in this exercise might change their use of the site in the future.