Wikipedia and Wikis–Content Creation and Analysis Leads to Learning

July 14, 2007 at 11:02 am 6 comments

While presenting at and attending several teacher conferences and workshops recently, I noticed quite a bit of negativity surrounding the issues of wikis in general and, specifically, Wikipedia. Mostly, I believe from my conversations, it seems that many still do not understand much about wikis or enough about Wikipedia. Certainly, there has been a lot published about Wikipedia and comparing it to other encyclopedias, with the Searcher article from early 2006 often cited, but I am still surprised by the strong reactions I receive from teachers, professors, and school librarians when I talk about Wikipedia as a positive example of Web 2.0.

Yes, I understand the downsides of the Wikipedia model, but I also recognize the positive aspects. For instance, I have never seen my undergraduate or graduate students in courses I have taught at Rider University and Rutgers University work harder at ensuring that the information they were providing or revising on their class wikis and/or Wikipedia was extremely accurate, up-to-date, and thoroughly-cited with academic resources! See, they knew that they were authoring information and placing their content into a vehicle which would automatically receive criticisms/comments by many, not just from their professor. This is a good thing, as they knew they were creating or revising global content, seeing themselves as members in a community of learners. Not allowing the use of Wikipedia whatsoever, or evening totally blocking it at schools with blocking software, is not the answer to our problems with it.

In my quest to better learn about and educate others on Web 2.0 collaborative tools, including wikis and Wikipedia, I must say that I have enjoyed the conversations and even some of the strong debates about their usefulness and appropriateness. But since I have not been blogging about Wikipedia itself, I thought it was time to do so. In a very recent email to a conference participant, I mentioned several older and recent postings and publications about Wikipedia in general that I would like to share more widely.

My favorite, now, is the 7 things you should know about Wikipedia from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative that came out last month. I think anyone who wants to learn more about Wikipedia will find this 2-page article quite enlightening. EDUCAUSE provides an interesting scenario of a student using Wikipedia as a source for his paper, followed by a concise explanation of what Wikipedia is, who’s using it, how it works, why it is significant, its downsides, its future, and, finally, a short paragraph on its implications for teaching and learning, which ends by stating that “some theorists contend that content creation and analysis is a necessary component of learning. Wikipedia can encourage students to analyze what they read, ask questions, and engage in reflective, creative learning.” I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s learn both sides of this issue, and please, take the time to read and distribute this in your schools and libraries. Other articles and links I have led questioners to besides those mentioned/linked to above are these:

1) Middlebury College post in Mar. 2007, with almost a dozen other links.
2) A Business Week article in Dec. 2005. Check out the question and paragraph dealing with students citing a Wikipedia article.
3) Wikipedia’s own criticism article. Check out the references, as well as the critical article itself. Do a “Edit” and “Find on this page” search of “Wales” and you will see some of his comments here.

And you might also like Wikipedia’s other articles on itself with links:
1) Researching with Wikipedia.
2) Why Wikipedia is not so great.
3) Why Wikipedia is so great.

I hope this helps everyone better understand Wikipedia, and I welcome your thoughts and contributions to this post.

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6 Comments

  • 1. Peter Bromberg  |  July 16, 2007 at 10:11 am


    As I’ve written in an earlier post
    , I have a fair level of trust in Wikipedia and think that some librarians tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater where Wikipedia is concerned.

    If you haven’t been following the (somewhat contrived) “debate” on Web 2.0 that’s taking place over on the Britannica blog, I highly recommend you direct your peepers to Danah Boyd’s excellent and insightful piece (itself of a critique of Gorman’s piece), “Knowledge Access as a Public Good“.

    Boyd goes way beyond the discussion of whether or not Wikipedia is a trustworthy source and puts it into a social and historical context. Wikipedia is both an instigator of and a reflection of a shift in power; specifically a shift of power away from the publishers and information gatekeepers and towards everyone and anyone else who has a pc and an internet connection. It’s therefore not surprising that criticisms of Wikipedia come from librarians, publishers, and the MSM, all of whom, arguably, have something to lose as the power to publish, distribute, critique, and evaluate information is more widely available to the great unwashed.

    Power to the people! :-)

  • 2. Robert J. Lackie  |  July 16, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for your comment and additional read, Pete. It is unfortunate that when a school or a department of a university bans or blocks a unique resource or provider, such as Wikipedia or the entire Google domain, a lot of negative publicity results. However, although I hear “Middlebury College” being batted around often, many “reports” are inaccurate or incomplete (Middlebury’s History Department actually praises Wikipedia’s convenience and extreme usefulness). I hope my post, your response, and the links included in the post to Middlebury’s response, as well as the EDUCAUSE article and your suggested critique article, help others to understand the power, usefullness, and future of wiki projects benefiting all of us in this country and around the world.

  • 3. Seth Stephens  |  July 19, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    While the term wiki is new, the concept is not. William S. Learned writing for the Carnegie Foundation in 1924 addressed the concepts of the discovery and diffusion of knowledge in his report “The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge”. Reading this report one can easily imagine that the author may have been speaking about wikis

    According to Learned the formulation and diffusion of knowledge is in many respects more difficult than its discovery. For example, experience the difficulty a person may have when trying to describe a computer problem to a tech support person. The most difficult problem in such a situation is the presentation of the problem and solution in ways that both can grasp and understand.

    Wikis cannot successfully diffuse knowledge. Successful diffusion of knowledge is the product of interaction and guidance. Take for example the act of answering a reference question. A librarian, through the act of asking questions and listening, is able to determine what knowledge is being sought. Using the information gathered in the reference interview the librarian is able to select, filter, organize and present knowledge in a way that has meaning to the inquirer. Or at least that’s the way we hope it will work.

    At its best the wiki presents knowledge to the inquirer. It can go no further. You cannot ask a question of a wiki article and have it respond to you. As a child my father was fond of directing me to the World Book Encyclopedia he had proudly purchased. If I asked him a question he couldn’t answer he would tell me to look it up in the World Book. My father assumed that the World Book article would provide the knowledge I sought. He never considered the aspect of diffusion. He did not question the World Book’s ability to share knowledge. The wiki provides no means for interaction. It does not ask “does this answer your question?”.

    A wiki excels at the discovery and formulation of knowledge, but because it is a technology, it cannot successfully diffuse knowledge.

  • 4. Librarian/Runner/Mets Fan/Mom  |  July 20, 2007 at 9:39 am

    In my graduate Reference Sources and Services class, we compared Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedias. With respect to reasonably current events, Wikipedia provided extensive information while traditional encyclopedias had nothing or almost nothing. There is a definite place in education for Wikipedia.

  • 5. Robert J. Lackie  |  July 22, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for your detailed and interesting comments, Seth and “librarian/runner”–I am sure our readers will like reading your comments as well.

  • 6. AndyG  |  July 24, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Wikipedia editors strive for neutrality in their writing. To the extent that it is achieved, I think this standard, along with the currency of the articles, adds value to Wikipedia as an information source.


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