How to Use Wikipedia at School

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Encyclopedias Do Serve Scholarly Purposes

Teachers and parents are often concerned when students use Wikipedia as a source of information.

When students consult an encyclopedia, they typically hold a reasonable expectation that information contained in the article will be reliable and verifiable.  Educators who do not allow students to use Wikipedia as a source, often cite reliability as a topic of concern.  Some incidents of vandalism on the pages of Wikipedia raise the level of concern. In addition, those who post and revise articles in Wikipedia may not be experts.  In May 2009, Genevieve Carbery reported that a student researching journalism and globalization placed a false quote in an obituary which was subsequently picked up and reported as factual by newspapers around the world. However, Wikipedia’s reliability compares favorably to traditional encyclopedias in most regards.

Glossary of Language Education Terms

Wikipedia

When Should an Encyclopedia be Used?

Encyclopedias, whether online or printed in bound volumes on paper, are useful sources of information. Editors and contributors to encyclopedias generally set out to collect information about a wide variety of information, but may also limit the scope of articles to a specific domain (such as a medical encyclopedia). Because encyclopedias are collections of articles on a vast array of topics, they are generally excellent sources of information when students need background information about a topic.

For example, a student writing about an interest in the human genome project may decide to do a little reading on the development of the double-helix. Since the main topic of the student’s inquiry is the genome project, reading a Wikipedia article about the double-helix polymer would seem appropriate.

Many encyclopedia entries are well-sourced; that is, they include references to other documents, media files, and experts that support the assertions found in the article.  As a result, a student completing research on the genome project may find some additional sources to consult by reading the article’s reference list.  Savvy users of an article’s reference list locate those articles, read them, and evaluate them.  They also independently search for additional sources that may support, contradict, or expand on those sources. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, encourages students in college not to use an encyclopedia as a source in writing academic  papers (Young, 2006).

Using a Collaboratively-authored Encyclopedia

The nature of the encyclopedia is that of a secondary source.  Wikipedia, for example, does not claim to be a publisher of original thought, and it should not be treated as such by those consulting it as a resource. Virtually all encyclopedia articles report knowledge based on other sources; that is, original or primary sources are consulted. However, the authors, whether experts in their fields or interested parties that wish to contribute, must select from many sources and interpret those sources in writing an encyclopedia article.  Thus, rather than ban the use of Wikipedia and similar collaborative projects, students and teachers can ask the following questions. Teachers can help students learn to question any secondary source.  Three questions students might remember when they consult any encyclopedia:

  1. Am I reading this encyclopedia article for background knowledge?
  2. Will reading this encyclopedia article help me find sources that support or refute the main points in my own writing and presentations?
  3. What other sources can I consult?

and two questions specifically for online, collaborative encyclopedias

  1. Have I checked the history tab to see who has contributed (some posts are anonymous, but the list of edits and revisions can be revealing)?
  2. Is there anything that appears to be missing or not addressed in this article that is found in other sources?

Finally, teachers may best be able to help students learn to evaluate the sources they use and when to use them rather than banning them outright.

References

Carbery, G. Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries. Irishtimes.com., May 6, 2009.

Young, J. R. Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation. The Wired Campus, June 12, 2006.

This repost originally appeared in 2009.

Wolsey, T.D. (2009, Oct, 15). How to use Wikipedia at school. [blog post]. Retrieved from https://suite.io/tom-wolsey/2e16247

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