Wikipedia as an Educational Exercise

Has Wikipedia.org changed your life? If you are a TA or an instructor, you may have discovered portions of this website used by your students in papers or class discussion. It is often the first place our students go when confronted by a new topic, much to the dismay of those of us who wish they would go to a library.

The site also has a bad reputation among many educators—it is a source of information often written by non-specialists. How can this possibly meet the same standards as traditional encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, and peer reviewed articles?

The short answer is: it can’t because it is not the same kind of source as peer reviewed materials. Entries in Wikipedia.org are constantly reviewed, edited, updated, and discussed by sometimes hundreds of people (in the case of controversial topics like abortion) or just a few (in the case of more specialized topics). Some of those involved are professionals, some are not. Some changes are accurate, some are not.

So in the interest of engagement with new technology, this article explores the website, its policies and practices, and then suggests an exercise that will teach your students to evaluate the site while helping them to contribute and improve it.

Entries and Discussion Pages

The majority of entries (topic pages such as "atom," "George Washington," or "literary technique"), have two sections—the public entry and the discussion page. The public entry is the first page you reach after searching a topic. It contains the description, discussion, and explanations about the topic and often includes diagrams or pictures. All versions of the public entry are archived, so when changes are made, the old version is still available.

The discussion page is the place where contributors (totaling approximately 10,000 individuals out of a total of 7.9 million registered users for the site) discuss issues in the article; such issues can include questions of reliability, fairness in representation of perspective, connections between articles, and merging articles that seem to be discussing similar topics. Various perspectives are discussed until an agreement is reached. Because all changes are archived, if a change is made that is not compliant with Wikipedia.org’s policies the original can be retrieved. If an account or IP address makes a number of non-compliant changes, they are banned from the site.

Although the site can be useful, not all pages—which total 2,563,508 content pages in English as of 27 September 2008—fulfill the requirements set forth by the website. Since pages must be edited by users and editors, only the most obviously wrong entries and changes to the most trafficked entries are changed quickly. So how do we teach our students to evaluate this information source? First, by making them aware of how the entries are written and the standards to which they are held.

Policies of Wikipedia

The website presents a number of policies to those people who create an account to enable them to edit or create entries. Among the many policies—available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Wikipedia:Policies_and_guidelines —are the three "core content policies:" neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research.

1) Neutral Point of View. The first of the policies bears quoting in its entirety:

The neutral point of view is a means of dealing with conflicting verifiable perspectives on a topic as evidenced by reliable sources. The policy requires that where multiple or conflicting perspectives exist within a topic each should be presented fairly. None of the views should be given undue weight or asserted as being judged as "the truth," in order that the various significant published viewpoints are made accessible to the reader, not just the most popular one. It should also not be asserted that the most popular view, or some sort of intermediate view among the different views, is the correct one to the extent that other views are mentioned only pejoratively. Readers should be allowed to form their own opinions.
As the name suggests, the neutral point of view is a point of view, not the absence or elimination of viewpoints. The neutral point of view policy is often misunderstood. The acronym NPOV does not mean "no points of view." The elimination of article content cannot be justified under this policy by simply labeling it "POV." The neutral point of view is neither sympathetic nor in opposition to its subject: it neither endorses nor discourages viewpoints. Debates within topics are clearly described, represented and characterized, but not engaged in. Background is provided on who believes what and why, and which view is more popular. Detailed articles might also contain the mutual evaluations of each viewpoint, but must studiously refrain from asserting which is better. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:NPOV, accessed 10 Septempber 2008. Emphasis added.)

Wikipedia aims to provide entries in an academic style—evidence, not discussion or conjecture, is the goal. This style of writing provides an important learning opportunity for our students (in the exercise at the end of this article) because it will push them to back up all comments with evidence, not impassioned personal narratives.

2) Verifiability:

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged, or the material may be removed.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Verifiability, accessed 10 September 2008. Emphasis in the original.)

This policy can pose an important challenge to our students—how, exactly, do you rely on sources? This is an important question not only for online sources (like blogs, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, or about.com), but also news reports (print, online, 24-hour cable news), books, and peer review articles. Teaching our students that these are not all equivalent is an important part of our exercise.

3) No Original Research: The third of Wikipedia.org’s policies emphasizes that the site is not the place to "publish original research or original thought." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Wikipedia:No_original_research, accessed 10 September 2008.)

Along with the neutral point of view policy, this policy can be used to remind our students that an analytical academic style of writing requires evidence—citations, not personal theories.

These three core policies are interconnected in the site’s goal to present publicly available, peer reviewed (if possible), research and knowledge. When entries do not meet these policies, contributors and editors are asked to make changes as quickly as possible.

Using Wikipedia

We can teach our students to evaluate this, and other web sources, by directly engaging with the site and its materials in the context of our classes. The goals of the following exercise are twofold. First, teaching students that critical evaluation of the site (and really, much of the material available online) is crucial. Second, the exercise turns the site into a collaborative exercise in knowledge production. It also has the added benefit of producing an accurate entry that others can rely on.

So what do we do? First, start with a little research. Search the website for topics in your course that you would like students to learn by the end of the semester. Choose key terms (i.e., literacy or modernism), people (i.e., Noam Chomsky), dates/time periods (i.e., 12th century, or 1978), or places (i.e., Guiyang, or Hyderabad). Remember, the site works like an encyclopedia so phrases or technical jargon may not appear.

Next, assess the entry. A well written, well cited entry may be less instructive to the students than a very inaccurate entry. However, a topic with subtle inaccuracies or an extensive discussion page will also provide an important learning opportunity for your students.

In general, you are looking for entries and/or topics that will allow your students to see a range of quality of both entries and discussion. Entries on the site range from complete, well written, verifiable articles down to "stubs" (minimal and/or incomplete entries). By using the full range in your class, students will discover that the site is not really a coherent whole. Each entry stands alone and must be evaluated as such.

Once you’ve identified a few entries, you may want to create a handout with some of Wikipedia’s policies from above. Since the final goal of the assignment is to create a "publishable" entry, students’ submissions to you should meet these criteria. This also has the additional benefit of educating your students to the goals of the site which will help them evaluate this and other online sources—all sites are not equivalent!

Next, divide your students into groups and assign one entry per group. Their task is to assess the entry, evaluate the writing (for POV, validity, and verifiability) and then write a new (or revised) entry. In order to complete the assignment, students will need to use library materials in the form of books or journals. They will read any sources already cited in the entry, assess their inclusion, and add new sources (cited correctly) as necessary.

While you are probably their best resource to contextualize their entry (maybe in course materials or lectures), they will be responsible for filling in the gaps, making connections between course materials, and learning that all online sources must, for university purposes, be evaluated against published and/or peer reviewed material.

At the end of the semester, evaluate the entry:

  1. Is the information conveyed in a "neutral point of view?"
  2. Is the entry verifiable—did they provide citations for all evidence presented?
  3. Were students able to general accurate evidence for all claims?
  4. Did they cover any nuance or disagreement in the topic and were they fair to sides?

It may also be a good idea to end the project by having student groups present on what they found in terms of accuracy, how they improved the site, and what they now think about the site. This way, the students are able to see the full range of entries and can then discuss how what they learned in this exercise might change their use of the site in the future.