A Teacher’s Guide to Wikipedia

Wikipedia is often vilified in educational circles. The site’s loudest critics think that it offers biased, non-credible information. Many teachers specifically ban students from using the site from as a reference in research papers. However, though they may not cite it in their final papers, many students start their research process on Wikipedia. Not because they’re being defiant, but because the site comes up first in many online searches.

Wikipedia image

As educators, we know that controversial topics are rarely simply a case of “good” versus “bad.” The debate about Wikipedia’s place in education is no exception. There are some aspects of the site that are positive and others that are negative. To help you consider some of the facts, we’ve put together this list of the pros and cons of Wikipedia and added some suggestions for using the site in your classroom.

What is Wikipedia?

The name of the site, “Wikipedia,” is a portmanteau of the Hawaiian word “wikiwiki” meaning quick and the English word “encyclopedia.” Not surprisingly, then, the site is an online encyclopedia that enables people from around the world to add and alter content. The information on Wikipedia is free and there is no cost to create an account on the site.

Through the collaborative process of writing and editing on Wikipedia, users add, delete, and refine information in encyclopedia-like entries. Users make thousands of changes to entries per hour. It is among the 10 most popular websites in the world and has 35 million articles written in 288 languages.

Wikipedia has long been criticized for the lack of reliability, especially because entries get “vandalized,” Wikipedia’s term for the addition of purposely-false information, with graphic and potentially offensive content. In 2001, Wikipedia started as a completely open environment, meaning it could be edited by anyone, even people without accounts. Those edits were immediately published. Since then, Wikipedia has closed its environment slightly. Now, only registered users can edit or create articles. Some topics, those that are particularly sensitive or have been subject to frequent vandalism, are closed to editing.

It’s good for teachers to note that Wikipedia does not censor language and images. The site entries may contain graphic illustrations, nudity, and insensitive language. If you decide to use Wikipedia in classroom lessons, it’s best to double check pages right before you present them to your students to ensure the content is appropriate.

Pros of Wikipedia

Here are a few good things that teachers should know about the site:

  • Dedicated editors: Wikipedia assigns pages to specific editors so that errors don’t linger.
  • Multiple editors: Each page is tracked by several editors, so that there are a series of checks and balances for the information presented.
  • Frequent updates: Unlike your history textbook published 5 years ago, Wikipedia is constantly updated. You can count on entries for current events, deaths of important figures, and outcomes of political races to be timely and up to date.
  • Transparency: One issue teachers are always concerned with is student safety in online environments. While there are still some issues in this area with Wikipedia (see below), one feature the site does have going for it is transparency. Everything is public, even users’ message pages. So students won’t have hidden contact with anyone on the site.

Cons of Wikipedia

You take the bad with the good when it comes to this online encyclopedia. We’ve already addressed the problems of unreliable, inappropriate content, but there are a few more issues with Wikipedia that teachers should be aware of.

  • Biased information: The information on Wikipedia comes from volunteer editors, not journalists who are trained in unbiased reporting. People are naturally biased and those opinions and views show up in Wikipedia articles.
  • Lack of diversity in editors: A survey done in 2011 showed that 90% of the editors who contributed content to the site were male. A lack of gender diversity leads to additional bias and skewed information. Though there was no data provided about ethnicity or socioeconomic background of editors, these, too, could be important biasing factors.
  • Interaction with strangers: Wikipedia, like any online forum, includes interaction with people students don’t know in real life. Safety for student information and privacy should be considered before including any online resource in your curriculum.

Uses in the Classroom

We’re all fans of the “teachable moment.” A site like Wikipedia, with its many flaws, offers educators a chance to teach students valuable lessons in the context of a tool with which they are already familiar. Consider using the online encyclopedia:

  • As a starting point for research: The site comes up on the first page whenever you search anything. Why not encourage students to use the information found on a wiki page as a starting point? You can still require that actual, valid sources be cited, but Wikipedia does do a good job at providing an organized outline of content to help students narrow down a broad topic. What’s more, the listing of sources at the bottom of each page can provide further and more credible research sources for a students to explore perhaps even directly in their papers. In this way, Wikipedia can be a great introduction to help frame student thought, and can then be a spring board for deeper research.
  • To analyze citations: Some articles on Wikipedia are-well cited. They link to source material on the web or reference print books. Use Wikipedia to teach the dos and don’ts of what should be cited. If you find a page with facts and figures that don’t include citation, create a class account and add citations as Wikipedia editors.
  • To teach lessons on validating material: Once students have checked Wikipedia for their topics, teach them how to validate the information across sources. Ask students to pinpoint specific facts from their Wikipedia research and verify them in one or more additional sources—whether they be print or digital. Of course, this lesson doesn’t’ have to be specific to Wikipedia research; asking students to validate information is a good practice for all types of research.
  • In media bias lessons: Have students scour the site for information that shows political, gender, or racial bias. Helping students assess the validity of their sources is a big part of critical, close reading. Hold a Socratic seminar and ask students to present sites they found with bias, inviting other students to comment and ask question.

In Short

Wikipedia is an online resource with millions of entries and an abundance of great information. Like any resource, the information on the site should be verified. While Wikipedia may never make it onto your highly recommended list for student research, perhaps it can still be used in classroom lessons for other purposes. Let us know what you think about Wikipedia and if you use it in your classroom. Comment below or find us on Twitter or Facebook.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Wood

    August 14, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    Great article, Amanda. Very good overview for those in academia. Here is a guide for those who want to allow students to still use Wikipedia (http://www.legalmorning.com/guide-to-using-wikipedia-for-research/). It shows best practices on what to cite, how to cite, and how to get the best use out of Wikipedia without using it as your primary source.