End the (Educational) Fear of Wikipedia

by Cary L. Tyler

In part three of my look at “21 Things That will be Obsolete in 2009”, timing could not be perfect than examining the role of Wikipedia in education, especially as the website goes on blackout for a day (January 18th) in protest of anti-piracy legislation.

That is an issue for another day, but one of the common comments from educators has been the “do not use Wikipedia” crusade.

Shelly Blake-Plock said this about the online and free encyclopedia: “Wikipedia is the greatest democratizing force in the world right now. If you are afraid of letting your students peruse it, it’s time you get over yourself”.

I used to be on the “Thou shalt not use Wikipedia”. Now, I actually still say it, but for a different reason. Wikipedia may be too much for some students without basic instruction.

Case in point: Our school’s physics teacher, who has a PhD in Physics and is a retired Intel employee, recently told his students to be careful of using Wikipedia, not because it is shallow, but because the depth of how it explained physics terminologies.

To paraphrase him: “It had better information than in their text”.  (For a sample, look at how Wikipedia handles the concept of “absolute zero”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_zero.)

For the English teacher in me, I looked up “metaphor” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor) and found a pretty solid overview of the concept. Again, it is so technical that I would ask some of my students to take in only a chunk of the information on the page, but for my Advanced Placement students, it would not be a bad resource for them to attempt to deepen their knowledge of the concept of “metaphor”.

Of course Wikipedia cannot serve as a primary source, and should not. However, on well-constructed pages, there are a number of references and links to primary sources. I have taken some of these sources, gone to the university library online or Google Scholar, and found the primary information I need for a viable research paper. It often has been easier for me than wading through an initial Google search.

In light of rising costs of textbooks (and also, especially at the secondary level, textbooks that have been gutted or are too full of graphics instead of viable, at-level or above information), why not steer students in the direction of Wikipedia? With some basic instruction on how to use it, it could prove to be a valuable resource, especially considering that textbooks are not primary sources either.

Educators, students, for a little more on how to use Wikipedia in the classroom, visit this site: http://edudemic.com/2011/12/wikipedia-in-classroom/.

Also, visit this blog post from Macleans: http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2011/12/21/why-smart-profs-want-students-to-use-wikipedia/

21 Things that will be obsolete in education? Maybe..maybe not (Part II))


For decades the mere word has caused many a student to groan, roll their eyes, or cry out in frustration. However, it has been mostly a necessary evil (except when it is a waste of time and does not advance an educational goal).

Shelly Blake-Plock, in his 2009 article on “21 Things That will be Obsolete in 2009” in education, states that this very concept of homework will disappear…at least in its current setting. In Part II of my discussion over Blake-Plock’s list, I have to say that is already happening, but not fast enough.

First, some teachers are already doing what is called a “Flipped Classroom”, where lectures and concepts are provided outside of the classroom and homework per se is done in the class. Here is a video to explain this concept in more clarity:

There is plenty of debate around this and one that will be addressed later. However, I concur with Blake-Plock when he states that “we don’t need kids to ‘go to school’ more, we need them to ‘learn’ more.” Homework needs to continue to become simply academic engagement, whether is it at home and/or at school.

I have cut my lecturing back in half in the past couple of years, instead choosing to start assignments earlier but ask probing questions as the students begin their instruction. In the process, not only did my belief that study questions not cover nearly what students need to learn about a subject become even clearer, but I am finding where students are making mistakes much quicker and I am able to address them before they go home and shut down because they are struggling with the material.

One item I would love to see obsolete is the role of standardized tests in college admissions. Yes, I am an Advanced Placement English teacher, but it seems to me there is a growing emphasis on the test and it is stunting the abilities of teachers to provide a more rounded educational experience. Thanks to maturing social media and inexpensive costs of “cloud” storage, more emphasis needs to be placed on a digital portfolio. Colleges should set up admission folders for students to submit their best work. Yes, cheating is prevalent, which is why teachers should have access to those folders and be allowed to submit student work as well, and then admissions offices can compare that work to letters of recommendation, transcripts, community and volunteer service, other extracurricular activities and scores from AP, SAT, or ACT. It does not have to be hefty to be effective.

To make it even easier, establish a secured “Facebook” style site that is dedicated to adding admissions information, so that universities can pick and choose what they need to see from the potential student. I concede that there is some concern about privacy and how much should be made available on such a site, but there is really no need to put much on a secured cloud-based site that has not already been seen by teachers, friends, family, and other community members.

Coming soon: Differentiated Instruction and Wikipedia…why I feel the fear of Wikipedia has gone too far…

21 Things that will be obsolete in education? Maybe..maybe not (Part I)

Shelly Blake-Plock (a musician/educator who is particularly interested in the expansion of paperless classrooms) came up with a list of twenty-one things that will be obsolete in education in 2020. Since his blog came out in 2009, his ideas have been bouncing around educational cyberspace and raised some interesting conversations.

Some I agree with, some will be interesting to see if it transpires, and a few I hold suspect, even as get deeper and deeper into education technology.

I am going to address a few of these per blog, but for a quick review, here is Blake-Plock’s discourse via Mindshift.

The first three I am focusing on today are desks, language labs, and computers.

Desks would naturally be easy as more and more teachers shift to tables or specialized rows. Yet one thing Blake-Plock does not appear to address is the need, at least at times, for structure within a classroom environment, especially in the beginning or in particularly tough moments.

I vary on group instruction in a classroom:  It has worked wonders for my students who are already reasonably disciplined and also have some focus towards college. However, I have had particular groups of students who have had a particularly hard time with learning in general, and providing an open environment, at least in the early going, can prove more challenges than this teacher is willing to handle after all these years.

Thus, I have a mostly traditional row approach (that is adaptable for my seniors) to keep the theme of organization and order in place. Collaboration is nice, but when even today’s grad students still express frustration at working in group dynamics because there are too many “slackers” in them, it becomes important to not just jump on the collaboration bandwagon without a plan and an alternative.

Language Labs? Easy. They did not work well, at least in my experiences, when they were popular. For my generation, a big headset was only cool if I had my favorite music playing through them. Today, the concept is just as stifling in an era of You Tube and the improved vocal quality of educational audio.

Computers. Blake-Plock means PC’s, and she is half correct, especially with the proliferation of tablets. Quite frankly, computers, at least within the classroom setting, have been a hit or miss proposition ever since the Apple IIe. Teachers either had them or they didn’t, never had enough of them, or had problems knowing how to use them or did not have enough software or quality hardware to make them effective.  However, Blake-Plock is highly exuberant about the next wave of handheld hardware…yet the biggest question is who is going to pay for it and how much will be available. The haves will continue to get all the new stuff, grants will piecemeal them in some settings, while others will be on the outside looking in as long as the current method of providing money for education exists.

It also leaves out one other issue that teachers bring up time and time again: Lack of resource, time, and training…one of the issues things that, based on current situations, will not be obsolete by 2020.