With more than half of all US college students now using the site for background information before embarking on an essay, it’s clear that Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, has gained a foothold in the classroom. Darren Crovitz and W. Scott Smoot, writing in The English Journal, a publication of lesson ideas for English teachers, described the dimensions of one Wikipedia lesson that unfolded in Smoot’s middle school classroom. The lesson encouraged students to use the site to generate fresh ideas for research topics by looking for gaps in Wikipedia’s information.
Learning To Dig Deeper
Smoot’s ambition was to show how teachers can use Wikipedia to help students ask the right questions for writing research papers. First, he asked his class to shout out historical facts regarding president Abraham Lincoln. He wrote all the facts on the board: born in Kentucky; was president during The American Civil War; freed the slaves; and so on. Smoot then asked students to scroll through Lincoln’s Wikipedia entry, which happens to contain the same information on the board – and not much more.
It’s clear, Snoot pointed out to the students, that writing a report with the information in the Wikipedia article would be redundant. After all, just like an article in your standard encyclopedia, the entry contains all the information most educated people know about Lincoln. However students can use Wikipedia as a launch pad to look for what’s missing in general knowledge. Smoot asked his students to get curious: What didn’t Wikipedia address in the Lincoln article? Where are the gaps in information? Where might fresh research be possible? Smoot’s students came up with a few on the spot, including: How did Lincoln handle the stress of his position in a time of civil war? What personal convictions led him to oppose slavery, and were those taught to him or learned through experience?
Generating fresh research questions is great. Actually doing the research to answer those questions is even better. And Wikipedia, a large, dynamic worldwide research project, is the perfect vehicle for that.
Since anyone can write and edit Wikipedia, students themselves can get involved, with teacher guidance. Smoot and Crovitz suggest students pick topics from a Wikipedia vetted list for a class assignment, writing their own entries and participating in online discussions with other editors. Students can also go through existing Wikipedia topics and improve on the research by adding links to credible sources, for example.
Understand The Pitfalls
While the open source nature of Wikipedia makes for an interesting and unique learning tool, the fact that it can be edited by anyone is also Wikipedia’s weakness. Incomplete citations, bias, and misinformation are not uncommon. Vandalism happens, including a well publicized ‘revenge editing’ incident, where bitter author Robert Clark Young mangled the biography pages of several other fiction writers he disliked. It’s for that reason, of course, that Wikipedia traditionally gets a bad rap among educators. It’s also why Crovitz and Smoot suggest that before embarking on a Wikipedia lesson, teachers should make students aware of Wikipedia’s drawbacks. Sources and documentation should be checked. Discussion pages, where editors debate elements of information, are also good to scroll through when determining whether or not to trust a certain section.
Of course, when dealing with a tool with a reach this universal, it’s important to remain cautious. However, Crovitz and Smoot have shown that Wikipedia can indeed be invaluable in the classroom; as long as everyone is aware of the site’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.
Adam is the proprietor of Tutor Delphia, a private tutoring service in the Philadelphia area. In addition to managing the business end of things, he is also a tutor and former teacher in the Philadelphia School District.