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To Wikipedia or not to Wikipedia

Do you / should you recognise use of Wikipedia as a source of content for student research projects?

For years, the answer was an overwhelming ‘no’.  It’s open-edit nature meant that it simply had too many inaccuracies and gaps in explanations and meaning.  Lines such as “This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations” or “This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications” don’t usually inspire confidence. 

Nonetheless, the fact remains – students use Wikipedia for their research and lecturers telling them not to is not a deterrent to their Wikipedia usage.  Now, with Wikipedia with us for a decade is it time to change our approach.

When asked by students I have suggested that Wikipedia is a useful source and starting-point for ideas and brain-storming.  The vast number of hyper-links available is particularly useful for chasing a train of thought. Some articles have extensive reference lists (many are reputable) that can be worth sourcing.   Having an army of editors to point out that a page needs references or is incomplete is warning itself to users that a page cannot be taken too seriously but yet might be worth exploring.  Using Wikipedia as a starting point in exploring concepts and ideas might cause students to return to the page later and suggest the appropriate edits that are needed.

Wikipedia has come a long way in its 10 years.  Now it has a range of useful features including an “in the news” and an “on this day” sections covering the latest world news stories and a list of historic (modern and not-so-modern) events that happened on this date in previous years.  It also has a range of sister wiki projects, some of which are most impressive indeed.  The following are worth a look:

  • Wiki Commons – a multimedia collection
  • Wikionary – an online dictionary covering 400+ languages
  • Wiki Quote – a selection of quotes from a variety of sources
  • Wiki Books – completed and work-in-progress, a great way for budding authors to get published and received feedback on their progress to date
  • Wiki Species – for those with an interest in flora and fauna
  • Wiki News – along with the latest world stories there is a chat facility to interactively comment on these stories
  • Meta-Wiki – a community space for contributors and anyone else to talk about Wikipedia itself
  • Wikiversity – a selections of learning tools and materials, comes with the by-line “set learning free”, part of the growing trend to freely distribute classroom content, also provides community space for educators to collect and interact

It would appear that the perspective of Wikipedia as a collection of unreliable and ill-considered content is a thing of the past.  However, it’s not quite formal, high-ranking academic peer-reviewed journal status either.

Nonetheless, Wikipedia seems to have an important role in providing content to think about – surely an important feature of any educational program.



If you can’t beat ’em…

… join ’em.

And that’s what Encyclopaedia Britannica have done – sort of. 

The competition in the form of Wikipedia have had much success (yes, I know, I remember the sabotage examples too – but they seem to have overcome them) and has people flocking to their site in droves. Ask any 20-year old what Encyclopedia Britannica is and you very well might get blank stares. Wikipedia allows Joe Soap to contribute to it, and so Joe Soap knows all about it and its among his first choices when looking for information on whatever topic.

Britannica aren’t quite going the Wikipedia way of embracing the crowd for its contents. They are retaining  the emphasis on the domain experts (ok, there is some UGC but it seems to be downplayed).  One wonders how much an Encyclopedia Britannica expert gets paid. The cost adds to the cost of the final product. Wikipedia have discovered that people are more than willing to give away their expertise for free. This has a double plus – allowing the end product to be freely available and so more accessible to the those who want to peruse it.  Also, there is the the associated status. Having contributed to a working and accepting page of a well-travelled site is a badge of merit worn with pride – and we all know how pervasive online viral marketing can be.

I am curious about the “web-based tools that visitors can use to put together their own reference materials”. That might be interesting. Interesting enough to pay for….. perhaps, or perhaps not.

what do students choose to do when…..

……. in class but not engaged in formal learning?

An interesting side effect of the cold weather is that students stay in during their class breaks instead of heading outside for a cig or a coffee. In a double class today with a break in the middle I decided to have a peek at what students got up to. Here’s a summary –

  • Read football reports online – 1 student
  • Watch football movie clips on youtube – 1 student
  • Watch movie trailers on youtube – 1 student
  • Search wikipedia – 3 students, all in different languages, none of them english
  • Catch up on e-mail – 3 students
  • Catch up on Bebo – 3 students
  • Catch up on Facebook – 1 student
  • Play computer games – 2 students (on the same internet game, and sitting right beside each other)
  • Text on their phones – 1 student
  • Talk to each other – 3 students

Having spent an hour doing computer-based work, the vast majority of students volunteer to stay on that computer even though they dont have to. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Whichever, it shows how integrated undergrads are with technology.

What do I learn when I ask about their preferred breaktime habits –

Bebo and Facebook at most popular on Mondays. The same clubs and pubs are attended but everyones experience of a night out is different. So reading about each others reflections on said night out on Bebo or Facebook is a way of catching up with friends that can’t actually happen on the night out itself. How about that? Going out is only as interesting as what is said the next day about same night out. Social situations and environments are extended beyond the boundary of the night out.  Loosely jointed records are there for all to see. Students get to evaluate the social event from multiple perspectives, form opinions and feelings about people and scenarios, and then act on them in a way not possible without social networking sites.

youtube clips are short enough to be watched quickly and so avoid the need to commit to something in-depth that may not be interesting. Web design gurus tell us that it only takes a couple of seconds to decide whether we like a website or not. Is it the same with other aspects of the web – our attentions span is so low, we cant become engaged with anything online for any extended period of time. It’s digital fast food. We want our web content dished up in a bit-sized chunks that we can sample and decide yes / no very quickly

Wikipedia is a source of information that is considered trustworthy and reliable. While we would rather students read scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals, they prefer wikipedia. IS this such a bad thing? Wikipedia isn’t any more factually incorrect than Encyclopedia Britannica, its got a significant amount of inter-linkages, it alters the reader when pages are incomplete or need more work, it has a “by the people for the people” feel to it, its got enough members who care to keep the riff-raff vandals from sabotaging it.

Computer games are a means of having a laugh while spending quality time with mates. Classmates bonding has a positive effect on a class. And if new skills and abilities are picked up in the process of the bonding (the students were playing a co-operative game that required them to work together to solve a problem) then why arent we as educators embracing computer games more? Perhaps its becasue gaming technology doesnt map onto formally prescribed curricula so easily, or its a large scale effort that we simply do not have the time for?

Here’s the really interesting part – there was as much learning going on during the break as in the classtime. Yet the break time content doesn’t get any credit