Topic: Wikipedia as an educational resource


wiki.png
version 1 by Nohat (concept by Paullusmagnus); Wikimedia

Overview


Wikipedia is a free-access online encyclopedia that currently has over 5 million articles and topics. As a collaborative project with a rate of over 10 edits per second, the site is constantly growing and changing. What makes Wikipedia so unique is that anyone who creates an (unverified) account can edit articles and contribute to the site -- this allows for readers to have the most up-to-date information. However, this wide-ranging open access also introduces that possibility that readers are not always provided with factual, verified information.
  • Can we rely on Wikipedia as a useful source of information?
  • How do we teach students to decipher what they are reading?
  • What are some alternatives to Wikipedia?

Wikipedia: Can we rely on this information?


Wikipedia provides users with an incredible amount of information with just the click of a button. You visit Wikipedia in order to search for information on one topic and it can easily lead you to numerous different articles on related topics (that's part of the fun of using the site!). However, despite the ease of access, we have to remember that we must proceed with caution as anyone and everyone can create, edit, and publish articles on Wikipedia. Additionally, it is primarily up to other users to spot misinformation and correct it. With the rate in which pages are created and edited, there is a high probability that you will stumble upon misinformation at some point when accessing Wikipedia.

Despite the possibility for misinformation, as mentioned in Chapter 4 of the book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom, associate professor of sociology and social media researcher Alex Halavais conducted an experiment that involved intentionally creating 13 mistakes throughout Wikipedia. He found that within a week every single one of the 13 mistakes were corrected. His simple experiment definitely illustrates the idea that people enjoy sharing correct information more than spreading misinformation. It also speaks well of the abilities of the Wikipedia community at large, as users were quick to spot and correct said mistakes.

Ultimately, when using Wikipedia, we should be careful, but we cannot rule it out as a tremendous resource.

Fact-Checking Wikipedia


As mentioned above, Wikipedia does have its pitfalls, as the information found on the site is not always 100% accurate; additionally, for better or worse, Wikipedia is completely reliant on unverified users to create new topic pages, as well as spot and edit information on existing pages. However, despite its detriments, it does not mean we should discount Wikipedia as an educational resource. We just have to approach it cautiously and teach students how to carefully vet all information found on the site.

How can we ensure the individual pages we access via Wikipedia are based on factual, credible information?
  1. We must teach students to evaluate the source; the most in-depth means of evaluation is via the SCARAB method. SCARAB asks students to examine the Substance, Currency, Authority, Relevance, Accuracy, and Bias of online sources. The goal of the SCARAB method is to get students thinking about where the information came from, who published the information, and the validity of the information. The SCARAB method can also be used to lead students to further research (e.g. tracking the original source information, verifying author credentials, and fact-checking via other online sources).

  2. In addition to evaluating the source, we must teach students where to fact-check (as we don't want them to fact-check through other sites that may also potentially contain misinformation). A good place for students to start their verification of facts is the references listed at the bottom of each Wikipedia page; students can also visit individual author's websites (if available). Additionally, there are a host of fact-checking websites available, including Factcheck, Library of Congress, Politfact, and Snopes.

Alternatives to Wikipedia


While Wikipedia is fast and easy to use, ultimately, it cannot be considered a "scholarly" resource, as demonstrated in the section above. When referencing reputable sources becomes a necessity, where might one turn as an alternative to Wikipedia?

  1. Citizendium is a wiki created by one of the founders of Wikipedia with a goal of increased reliability through verified contributors (referred to as Expert Authors). While general members can post/edit information (as with Wikipedia), there's an emphasis on providing verified information via peer-reviewed, scholarly articles.This provides a good point of contrast in response to the question as to why Wikipedia is not 100% trustworthy (e.g. expertise of posters is not taken into consideration, contributors are not verified, posts are not always peer-reviewed).

  2. Encyclopedia.com offers a free-access collection of nearly 200,000 reference articles from online published sources. The site is maintained by education publishers Cengage Learning and features information from verified, credible publications such as Columbia Encyclopedia and Oxford University Press.

  3. Encylcopedia Britannica is the online equivalent to those big heavy books found in every library in the reference section. In terms of size, the collection of knowledge found on this site is about 50% that of Wikipedia, but is the closest second in size and scope (as compared to other comparable resources). Encyclopedia Britannica will bring you to basic, factual, non-persuasive information related to just about any topic. The mention of the library is import here, as with most encyclopedias online these days, they require a login for access. Try using your student account and logging in through the library portal at your school; otherwise, there is a $70 yearly subscription.

  4. Scholarpedia is"the peer-reviewed open-access encyclopedia, where knowledge is curated by communities of experts." Scholarpedia has a similar interface and feel as Wikipedia; however, the resources are 100% written, peer-reviewed, verified, and curated by experts in the individual topic fields.

  5. The Free Library Boasting over 27 million books and articles, this site is likely to have information from sources that relates to your search subjects. It should be noted that there is a higher likelihood of a lower standard of reliability owing to the fact that some of these sources are articles in magazines and journals where sometimes it is advantageous to promote one viewpoint more than another. In general, the risk is low, but present.

  6. 100 Alternatives to Wikipedia This is a live link to a website that outlines 100 Wikipedia alternatives, including those listed above. There are several disciplines listed on this site that may be useful if looking within specific fields of study (i.e. history, literature, and the arts).

Conclusion


Wikipedia is an incredible, expansive, and widely accessible repository of information assembled voluntarily by willing contributors. This provides both positive and negative aspects when considering the reliability factor of each source. The positive aspects of Wikipedia include a higher probability of finding very recent, and relevant information. The negative aspects include that the information might not be accurate or incomplete. In every Wikipedia article there is an element of our human condition. When we meet new people, we begin to form a perception about whether the person is trustworthy. The same approach to Wikipedia must be taken when reading a new article -- one must form a perception as to the trustworthiness of the article.

Ultimately, when using Wikipedia, one should be careful, but one cannot rule it out as a tremendous resource. When using the resource of Wikipedia, one must vet all information found on the site using proven strategies for testing the validity of any entry. When information found on Wikipedia cannot be verified, one must turn to trusted alternatives. The entire research process can be interesting and exciting, and even entertaining. In the end, the seeker of knowledge desires the purest form of truth available. Sometimes this truth may come from Wikipedia, and sometimes it may come from other sources. It is up to the researcher to determine where the purest forms of truth are found.

References


Citizendium. (2015). Welcome to Citizendium. Retrieved from http://en.citizendium.org/
Encyclopedia.com. (2016). Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2016). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/
McHenry County College. (2015). Source Evaluation Rubric. Retrieved from https://www.mchenry.edu/library/tutorial/PDF/EvaluatingSourcesRubric.pdf
Pilinut Press. (2015). How to Fact Check. Retrieved from Pilunut Press:http://www.pilinutpress.com/Articles/Editing/HowtoFactCheck.html
Roby W. & Roy R. (2015) 100 Wikipedia Alternatives. Retrieved from http://www.freecollegeclasses.org/wikipedia-alternatives/
Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Connective Learning, LLC.
Scholarpedia. (2016). Welcome to Scholarpedia. Retrieved from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Main_Page
The Free Library. (2016). The Free Library. Retrieved from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/
Wikipedia. (2016). Wikipedia: Statistics. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics