Learning Center


Clarify the role of Wikipedia

april 1, 2019

Conversations among teachers regarding research-writing units inevitably include a few minutes about Wikipedia. This dialogue often consists of a list of reasons why students should not be utilizing the website. Common rationale includes: Anyone can post information. It is not credible; you can’t trust it. They have inaccurate information.

Although each of these statements can be supported with examples, they are overgeneralizations of much of the information available on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia can play a role within the research unit. However, it will require some explanation, clarification, and limitation in order for teachers and students to utilize it appropriately.

Concede its limitations

Within the “FAQ/Schools” portion of the Wikipedia site, teachers will find abundant information on how content is collected, edited, updated, and organized. This landing page also identifies uses (and abuses) of the website. This includes a clear warning to users to verify and evaluate the information stated within its website with external sources outside the website.

Wikipedia is built on a wiki platform, which means it’s able to be edited by anyone at any time. Anyone can add, delete, or revise information. This is the notion of a “crowd-sourced” website. Consequently, the accuracy of the information is limited to those contributing and editing the posts. And there it is–the reason many teachers do not want their inexperienced researchers on Wikipedia: it is possible that some entries have inaccurate information.

Despite this limitation, Wikipedia has some important benefits.

Acknowledge its purpose

A generic Google search offers a user thousands of potential sources sprawled across dozens of result pages. However, Wikipedia presents data gathered from a variety of sources all in one place.

Wikipedia Martin Luther King, Jr. Article

Like a traditional encyclopedia, this site is a massive collection of information. It can be a great starting point. Teach students how to navigate the site in order to:

  • Build background knowledge on unfamiliar topics.
  • Utilize the “Contents” outline as an overview of key facets, important people, and relevant vocabulary.
  • Generate questions to drive focused research.
  • Identify a list of potential sources to pursue.

During this instruction, establish rules and procedures. Make sure students understand the:

  • Definition of “crowd-sourced information” and its implications for potentially false or fake information.
  • Information learned on Wikipedia must be confirmed with outside sources.
  • Reasoning behind not citing Wikipedia as a source in a Works Cited or bibliography.
  • Process for accessing original sources via hyperlinks, references, citations, and footnotes.

C.A.R. Credible, Accurate, Relevant Sources - Student HandoutHarness its potential

Some teachers don’t allow the use of Wikipedia because it can”t be trusted. However, this same logic should be applied to every source!

Students must develop their media literacy skills. This includes determining if a source and its content are credible, accurate, and relevant.

This tends to be easier when the information is presented on an amateur looking website or the content is wholly false. But since all Wikipedia entries look the same, students can’t base their conclusions on graphics. And since entries are mostly but not completely accurate, users have to read closely, consider bias, verify information, and think critically when reading all aspects. Wikipedia requires students to apply a discerning eye throughout the entire entry in order to determine what is and is not true.

Ironically, the website some teachers have banished from the classroom may be the best tool to practice determining what information is fact, what is false, and what is fake.

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