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The Hows and Whys of Wikipedia in the Classroom

The Hows and Whys of Wikipedia in the Classroom

"I’ve found that asking my students to discuss a Wikipedia author’s tone and stance means that I don’t have to lecture at them."

Teaching featured writer, Katt Blackwell, was recently asked by a colleague why and how she taught Wikipedia in the classroom. In the following article, she delves into four reasons she uses Wikipedia in the classroom and how you can use it in your classroom.

Why Teach Wikipedia In the Classroom?

It teaches students to pay attention to authorial credibility

Given the open contributions allowed on Wikipedia, I have chance to teach my students why it is important to pay close attention to the ethos of their author. Since so many of these authors are not identified on Wikipedia by professional affiliation, it opens the class up to discussions about finding out about their authors.

Tone and stance become a discussion instead of a lecture

If you hand a student a scholarly article or even a newspaper editorial and ask them to talk about the author’s tone and stance, they clam up. But I’ve found that asking my students to discuss a Wikipedia author’s tone and stance means that I don’t have to lecture at them. Instead, this discussion becomes a group discussion. I think this stems from the fact that they feel Wikipedia is more their “turf” and scholarly materials are my “turf.” Regardless of why this works, I know that students comprehend more when we can begin a dialogue. I also know that dialogues only begin when students feel comfortable with what they’re talking about. So to get students talking about credibility means that I can get them to pay more attention to credibility in their research because they feel more comfortable assessing the author’s ethos.

Students learn to evaluate an argument early in the process

With the divergence of authors on Wikipedia, it’s easy to discuss evaluations of argument with students. As students are comfortable with Wikipedia, they feel more comfortable pointing out weak points and lack of counterargument in articles and pages on Wikipedia than they do in scholarly journals early in their research. Essentially, evaluation works in much the same way as authorial ethos. When students feel comfortable with what they are reading and talking about, the dialogue lets them learn a lot more.

Good resources for further research

One thing that I always teach my students is to follow the links and sources provided by authors. So asking students to begin with Wikipedia provides them with a good number of sources to begin their research with. While the articles on Wikipedia may not be usable in their research, they do at least learn that this is a good place to get access to some good research material.

How to Teach Wikipedia

Pick a controversial topic that students know a good bit about and one they know little about

When students are well versed in a controversy, they feel more comfortable talking about it. I choose a topic based on the amount of dialogue that students engage in during the classroom. This year, we’ve been using the abortion debate to discuss the controversy students know about because all of my students have engaged in this discussion.

When I choose a topic that students don’t know much about, I try to come up with one that has a good bit of research material online, but not as much in scholarly journals. Recently, I’ve been using the Ashley Treatment controversy. My students are not familiar with this topic, but discover early on that they have very strong opinions on this issue. We start by reading the blog and then I introduce them to the Wikipedia site on Ashley.

We spend a good bit of time hypothesizing about the paper we’re writing on Ashley. We follow the links (both inside and outside of Wikipedia) and discuss broadening research and evaluating sources. As we do this, we’re also talking about the other controversy, and we discuss it first. This way, students’ knowledge of the first topic informs their own sources and decisions with Ashley. This discussion gets them talking about how counterarguments on the parents’ blog as well as in the research of other scholars and bloggers. Bloggers are one reason that I love to use the Ashley Treatment. When this issue was new there were several very credible bloggers writing on the subject which also leads to the discussion of blogs in research (but that’s another topic).

As we come to a close on the Wikipedia topic, I have students spend a day in class following links on their topics Wikipedia site and beginning their working bibliography using only the sites that are credible and relevant to their research. This way, I have the chance to reinforce the positive aspects of Wikipedia in research while helping students comprehend how to write a paper without actually citing Wikipedia.

I hope this helps all of you caught in the great Wikipedia conundrum.


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