For too long I’ve bemoaned the presence of an overwhelming number of teachers, administrators and academics who grumble about students going to Wikipedia for information on a topic. Typical complaints include “you can’t be sure whether the facts are true or not,” “the authors lack credibility” and so on…
What these educators who are afraid of Wikipedia seem to miss is the fundamental point that Wikipedia has almost single-handedly redefined authenticity by virtue of creating a platform for collaborative writing that traverses boundaries; be they cultural, linguistic, political, or geographical. Time and time again, we realise that when two, ten, several hundred or a thousand authors get together to combine their expertise on any given topic, the result is far from unautentic, spurious or even poorly written. If anything, it’s possible to argue that a multiply-authored work in progress informed by univsersal freedom of speech is about as credible or authentic as you can get.
Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia and promote it in all my classes. Having said that, there is a possibility that when kids superficially skim any factual information page, they’re missing the point: to blindly accept something after one reading without question (which we unfortunately reinforce at times) is equally dangerous.
So how do we really begin with Wikipedia in our teaching? I think that meta-textuality is a crucial concept for kids to understand if they are going to critically engage with Wikipedia pages in the way that we would like. The fact is, with any page that we find on Wikipedia.org – the “discussion” tab is often more insightful than the main article. Just read the discussion page on Madonna, for instance, and you get a strong sense of how that page was constructed – the numerous points of disagreement, the delineation of sub-topics, the inappropriate wording and so on. Such a focus is a unit of work in itself!
Taking all of this on board, I wrote a Wikipedia analysis scaffold to get students thinking about how best to make critical use of Wikipedia pages. Feel free to download the DOC file and adapt to your needs. I’d also love to hear about what you do with Wikipedia in the classroom!