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/