Wikipedia has long been the bane of teachers’ classroom existence, or at least since its internet launch in 2001. Several years removed from our introduction to the free, user-sourced encyclopedia , it’s time for educators to reconsider WHY there is so much hostility towards Wikipedia. There are numerous ways for a creative educator to utilize the free resource to teach lessons across subjects and grade levels.
1. Inquiry based learning: Use Wikipedia as a starting point for inquiry-based learning. Students’ comfort level and familiarity with the online encyclopedia avoids teachers having to take time to introduce a technology or new resource that students have not used before. Teachers can truly guide students into the inquiry process without having to do much direct instruction. The links built into Wikipedia allow students to move quickly between topics and delve deeper into topics as they come up in research.
2. Teaching credibility, reliability, and bias: Use Wikipedia to teach these concepts in whichever topic is relevant to class (or have the students choose their own topic.) If the educator knock against Wikipedia is its credibility, then put it to the test. Have students compare information in Wikipedia against that in more traditional scholarly resources. The footnotes built into most larger topics on Wikipedia also allows students to test the credibility of those sources. By showing the history of edits made to topics, students can also evaluate bias of contributors.
3. 20% Time: Based on the concept of employers (most notably Google) giving workers free time to pursue any projects that interest them, use Wikipedia to teach skills while granting students their choice of topics. If the true goal of a lesson is to teach skills (technology, research, annotating, footnoting, etc.) then why does it matter if the topic is content specific or not? Allow the students to pursue their interests while still achieving the learning objective. You may be surprised how engaged students become when they’re choosing the topics.
4. Synthesis: The beautiful part of Wikipedia is that it is user-contributed content. If students can find information not already in the Wikipedia entry, encourage them to add it. If students find incorrect information, encourage them to edit the entry. Being published on one of the most visited sites on the internet provides incentives to deliver their very best work. Being critiqued by a teacher is one thing, but being critiqued by Wikipedia users is another.
5. Creativity: Go beyond basic synthesis and post totally creative student projects on Wikipedia. Have students create a fictional country, a new fictional species, or a biography of a fictional character and post it on Wikipedia. The more realistic it is, the longer it may stay unedited. Even following the revisions made to their fictional page has lessons of credibility (see #1). Students will take great pride in attempting to pull one over on the Wikipedia universe. Teachers can take great satisfaction in the excitement of their students. Everyone wins...unless a student somehow manages to break Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not going away, so educators should learn to embrace it.