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Exploring Wikipedia as an Online Educator


Is there a place for Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia in your classes? As an instructional designer I’ve worked on projects with requirements that ranged from including a note to students that Wikipedia was specifically not to be used, to including it as a reference item in unit reading lists.

I’m not opposed to Wikipedia, in fact I think it has a lot to offer, but I do think it needs to be approached with the same type of evaluation any other online resource should receive. I included a Wikipedia presentation in a recent post, “10 TEDTalks for Online Instructors“, and the talk encouraged me to take a closer look.

How does it work?

Wikipedia is one project of the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization with the goal of offering free access to an encyclopedia for, as founder Jimmy Wales described in his TEDTalk, “everyone on the planet.” This mission includes not only a wide reach, but also vast coverage currently offering over 4 million articles with contributions from more than 140 employees and 350,000 volunteers, as well as millions of users who have chosen to add content.

Editing Pages: The site includes guidelines for editing using a style and content manual. The wiki format allows each of us to edit the pages with the shared goal of improving the information available. There are step-by-step instructions available on how to edit a page, and you can even use the Sandbox to get familiar with the administrative side of the platform before posting your contributions to the main site.

Monitoring the Information: While any of us can edit the articles, there is a process in place to ensure review for quality assurance. Administrators, one of several roles that monitor content, can, for example, delete articles and block accounts deemed to be counter to the established guidelines of the site. Wikipedia acknowledges that its greatest strengths and weaknesses are related to open access, so while there are processes in place to monitor and maintain quality, some pages are solid while others present inaccuracies. Students and instructors alike should review each article for source, purpose, currency, and content when deciding whether or not to use it as a reference.

Conducting Research: Wikipedia seeks content that includes citation, verification, reliable resources, and is written in a neutral point of view. These are the elements to look for when viewing a Wikipedia article. You’ll see notations from the content monitors (see the example below) to help you evaluate the content and how well it has met Wikipedia’s criteria.

Wikipedia’s Reference Desk is designed to work like the reference desk you find at your library. Use this collection of information to explore more efficient ways to use Wikipedia for research purposes, and to submit questions you may have that aren’t already covered.

Why not contribute your expertise?

There seems to renewed interest in Wikipedia as an academic resource. It’s only as good as its contributors and contributions, and there’s a call for academics to participate by adding new content and recommending edits to existing content in their areas of expertise.

Editing can be anonymous, but by registering for a free account, you become part of the community and add your credentials to the process of content creation.

Like any other encyclopedia, Wikipedia is a place to start finding the answers to a question or solutions to a problem. It provides basic information from which to launch the more extensive search that is essential to academic work. And there are tools anad procedures in place to help with process. Instead of staying “you can’t use Wikipedia,” consider conducting your own exploration of the resources available and model good practices of the use of these openly available materials with your students.

What are your thoughts on the use of Wikipedia in online courses? Share your ideas and examples with us here.

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Image credit: Kalexanderson CC:BY-SA

October 16th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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