Wikipedia wants teachers to get involved

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Can the online site become a reliable educational tool?

Dietrich Neu
Contributor

We’ve all been warned. 

Using Wikipedia for research papers, essays, and everyday schoolwork means trouble in high schools and universities. The reason is simple: anyone, anywhere can edit a Wikipedia article. 

Wikimedia, the parent company of Wikipedia, is working hard to change all that.  Through teaching aids, instructional videos, incentive programs, and various projects and initiatives, Wikimedia is working hard to change the negative stereotypes regarding the reliability of their gargantuan online encyclopedia.

It’s wise for teachers to be skeptical of Wikipedia’s potential educational value.  Wikipedia is an open-source media. Anyone can contribute if they like and, as such, it is susceptible to vandalism. From a teaching point of view, it’s common sense to advise your students to avoid using a source of information that can be edited by anyone who feels like it.

Most examples of Wikipedia vandalism are overt. In 2007, the article for the cartoon character Batman was deleted after every inch of the page was filled with the phrase “DUN-NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH BATMAN!” But, the article was quickly restored using back-up files that are kept to prevent such abuse from having a significant impact.

Even if the vandalism isn’t obvious, the Wikipedia community often responds quickly as the website automatically notifies members of new changes, enabling informed users to correct the misleading information.

Recognizing that open-source media is a double-edged sword, the Wikimedia founders are putting forth a mammoth effort to educate teachers on responsible use of their website, and getting university professors involved not only in using the site, but in contributing to it as well.

Wikimedia provides interested teachers with a teacher’s guide. The guide is a web resource that explains what Wikipedia is, answers frequently asked questions, and gives basic information on how to incorporate the website into their classroom structure.

Wikipedia encourages teachers to incorporate articles created by their students into their database. Through the correct creation of an article, students not only learn what is required of an article to be considered as reliable, they also learn what to look for in other articles when doing research of their own.

Wikimedia has also held several meetings and seminars with professors from around the United States to educate others about how Wikipedia can be used in a way that insures facts are being checked and students are not being misled.

If a teacher is interested and willing, the Wikimedia outreach program provides them with a step-by-step breakdown of how to include Wikipedia into the course material. Once the teacher has decided that working with Wikipedia is appropriate for their class, they can educate themselves on Wikipedia’s key principles and how abuse takes place. The Wikipedia teacher’s guide is aimed at informing users about what the site should and should not be used for.

After the teacher is educated on the site, they are encouraged to create and use their own personal Wikipedia user account and to contact a Wikipedia ambassador.  These ambassadors are volunteers all around the world who are committed to support student learning with Wikipedia. Ambassadors are used as a bridge between the Wikimedia founders and school professors, allowing the exchange of information, ideas, and suggestions.

Wikimedia also provides templates for making student clubs in local universities. The goal of these clubs is to teach students how to edit responsibly and peer-review articles on their own. The student clubs are also responsible for promoting respectful use of the free encyclopedia around their school.

Finally, there is Wikimedia’s public policy initiative. This initiative is designed to find and create ambassadors, reward and recognize teachers that incorporate Wikipedia into their classrooms, and research the quality of their own articles, helping to improve the website’s effectiveness.

Open-source media is a useful tool. But anyone can make contributions. That makes Wikipedia a vast body of knowledge, but causes it to be vulnerable to vandals.  Wikimedia is working hard to change all that. 

If the founders of Wikipedia want it to become, as they put it, “the ultimate learning resource,” they’ll need teachers to get involved.

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