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TOPIC: Wikipedia as an Educational Resource

What is a Wiki?

A Wiki is a web page that can be viewed and modified by anybody with a Web browser and access to the Internet. This means that any visitor to the wiki can change its content if they desire. While the potential for mischief exists, wikis can be suprisingly robust, open-ended, collaborative group sites. Wikis permit asynchronous communication and group collaboration. This Web site developed collaboratively by a community of users, allows any user to add and edit content as they chose.

Why Wikis are a powerful tool for Educators.
Wikipedia is the ultimate collaboration tool. Students can find information about anything and contribute to that information. Wikis have popped up on every subject matter you can think of . Students now see Wikipedia as the modern encyclopedia, and it has become an instant source for research. As Richardson (2010) points out, Wikipedia is the poster child for collaborative construction of knowledge and the new interactive Web. Instructors now have a tool to bring students together in doing collaborative research. Students can now see and add information to their Wikis. Instead of research by one, we have research by many.

Examples of how Educators are Using Wikis in the Classroom.

Wikis are an incredibly flexible tool. Think about how you might use them.
  • create an online text for your classroom
  • try creating a choose your own adventure
  • have your students use a wiki to publish information about a topic that they are investigating
  • create an online presence for your school
  • create digital portfolios for students and teachers
  • create collaboration opportunities between classes across the school and across the world

Wikipedia Warnings... A discussion point, food for thought. (Or... a cautionary tale)

Wikis are a great collaboration tool. When completely open, they allow anyone to add or delete text. A revision history allows editors to 'undo' changes that have been made, whether there has been a change of direction in the text or if the content is of questionable value. As a collaboration tool, wikis are one of the best. Easy to use, easy to edit, easy to share.

Is this really what you want in an encyclopedia?

The assumption is made that the collective knowledge of the readers of / contributors to an article will shape the content into the truth: that the final result, which may take months or years to achieve, will be an accurate representation of the facts within the topic. Will that always be the case? Is the consensus always right? I mean, after all, at one time the earth was flat. You could sail off the edge. Others felt it rested on the back of a tortoise. In some cases, isn't the 'truth' shaped by our culture? Think about Custer's Last Stand. Was he heroic or simply a bad strategist? Who was the hero, who was the villain? Isn't "history" simply "his-story"? Is Wikipedia different? Is it less prone to personal or cultural bias? Andrew Lih, (ironically links to a Wikipedia article) author of "The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia" stated in an NPR, TALK OF THE NATION, interview "Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers" on February 22, 2012 that, 91% of the Wikipedia's editors are male. The vast majority are also white. Can that fail to color the content?

So where does this leave us with regard to Wikipedia? Perhaps articles in Wikipedia eventually get to be the truth and factual on the topic, but along the way they can contain some untruths. There was some discussion in the interview with listeners (experts in their fields) who had called in, who had had difficulty correcting information in articles that they knew to be inaccurate. In these cases, the Wikipedia editors were loathe to accept the changes because the preponderance of society had, to this point, supported the already stated 'facts'. Even though they were incorrect. Food for thought: a commonly held belief (common knowledge) isn't necessarily the same as a fact.

The Wikipedia site, in its 'Making the best use of Wikipedia: Using Wikipedia as a research tool' section states, "Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information. Indeed, many articles start their lives as displaying a single viewpoint; and, after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument, they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus." (Emphasis mine). This section states that the ideal article is, "...well-written, balanced, neutral, and encyclopedic, containing comprehensive, notable, verifiable knowledge".

Wikipedia rates its articles, with the best called "Featured Articles" and the second best designated "Good Articles". Wikipedia, on its "Wikipedia:Good articles" page, states that out of the 4,068,790 articles on Wikipedia, 3,681 (1/1,110) are designated as Featured articles (the highest designation) 2,343 (1/1,740) as Featured lists and 15,873 (1/257) are designated as Good articles. Combined, 21,897 articles and lists (1/186) are considered to be Featured or Good. If you do the math, that means that 99.46% of the articles are not Featured or Good.

Good articles, the lower standard, is described on the above page this way, "In short, they are written very well, contain factually accurate and verifiable information, are broad in coverage, neutral in point of view, stable, and illustrated, where possible, by relevant images with suitable copyright licenses." What of the remaining 4,046,893 articles? Are these the articles that Wikipedia describes as, "...may contain false or debatable information"? I don't know... I couldn't find a description of the main body of Wikipedia articles. But... it makes my inner skeptic scratch his head and say, "hmmmm?".

A conclusion...
Wikis are a fantastic collaboration tool. One of the best. Very user friendly. I'd recommend their use in a second.
Wikipedia... an okay encyclopedia, but not the most authoritative source on all topics.

As always, use multiple sources and verify the credibility of content and those sources.

Google Docs... A Wiki-Like Tool

Google Docs is part of the Google Apps family. Docs consists of word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing tools. (Think... Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Draw, but with far fewer formatting features.) An added bonus is a tool called Forms which allows you to create surveys that are tied to the spreadsheets. The information gathered by the form is dumped into a spreadsheet which is automatically created by the form.

The word processing tool, often referred to as Documents (or Docs), allows live synchronous (at the same time) collaboration with multiple people. Together, you and colleagues can work at the same time (in the same document, you can see each others' text come into the document) to develop a lesson plan, write up directions for a field trip, draft a request for iPads for your classrooms, or any other topic of interest. While you are working you can open a text chat window along the side of the text (within the document) and visit about the construction of the document (or your children!). When you are finished creating your masterpiece, you can share it with others, regardless of whether they have a Google Docs account or not. Like a wiki, since there is only one version of the document, the one you all worked on together, keeping it updated is simple. No longer do you need to email attachments to each other, wondering which is the most current version. There is only one document which is continually updated.

Many people have a Gmail account but don't realize they also have access to all of the Google Apps along with that. Have a Gmail account? Be sure to check it out. Curious but don't have a Gmail account? Go to www.google.com and create your own account. You can use any email account that you already have or use the Gmail account that will be tied to that Google Docs account. Fun, fun , fun!

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