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Teaching Students to Use Wikipedia Wisely

posted: 7.7.09 by Traci Gardner

Like it or not, Wikipedia now shapes how many of us learn about the events that happen in the world today. Perhaps you have never turned to Wikipedia to find out more once you’ve heard something in the news, but many people in the world do.

How do we know? Wikipedia set a new traffic record on June 25th as thousands of people rushed to the site to learn more about the death of pop star Michael Jackson. What bothers some teachers isn’t that students may look up information online, but that students need to evaluate the information they find carefully to determine if it’s valuable.

On a collaboratively produced site like Wikipedia, any number of people may be updating and changing the information that is posted. On the day Michael Jackson died, for instance, hundreds of editors were updating the related Wikipedia entries.

Wikipedia entries can change frequently, and sometimes those changes are more subjective than objective. It’s useful to talk with students about the different perspectives that make up each Wikipedia entry.

Once students understand the range of information that can be included in a Wikipedia entry, they need to develop the skills to determine how accurate and relevant the entry is. I share these suggestions to help them decide:

  1. Look for images and notes on Wikipedia that indicate special details about the entry—and read them for tips on which information in the entry may change soon. For example, this note appears at the top of the Wikipedia entry on the Funeral of Michael Jackson this week:
    Current Event Warning on Wikipedia Entry
  2. Visit the History tab for the entry, and you’ll find details on the revisions that people have made. Check out the Page History Help for tips on how to use the information. Notice the dates of the changes to determine how current the information in the entry is.
  3. Use the comparison tool on the History page to look at how revisions have changed the article. The specific changes are highlighted on the comparison page.
  4. Click on the Discussion Tab for details on specific issues that have been explored regarding the article, including any debates on the information that has been included.
  5. Review the list of Notes and the References for the entry. If there are links, click through to compare them to the information in the article. Additionally, consider whether the references are reputable resources on the topic.
  6. Check the External Links for the article. Compare the information on the outside pages to the details in the entry. If there are differences, try to determine why.

If students need additional help, use the guidelines and examples in Bedford/St. Martin’s “Evaluating Online Sources: A Tutorial by Roger Munger.”

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Research, Student Success, Teaching with Technology, Working with Sources
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