[This article was originally published in Screen Education, 53, Autumn 2009, pp. 38-42. It is reproduced here with permission.]
Love it or hate it, everyone has heard of the Wikipedia. Explore most topical subjects on popular search engines like Google and the relevant Wikipedia entry will almost always be in the first few items returned. And far from a flash in the pan, on January 15 2010, the Wikipedia celebrated its ninth birthday, now encompassing more than 10 million articles spanning over 250 different languages. Yet, for teachers and academics the Wikipedia can be a constant source of concern as students increasingly start (and, in the worst cases, end) research on a new topic with a quick peruse of the Wikipedia entry. The biggest concern comes from the core premise of the Wikipedia: it’s an online encyclopaedia that can, literally, be edited by anyone. Yet for all of the fashionable talk of crowdsourcing, collective intelligence and the wisdom of the crowds, most educators prefer their students to be using sources which have more authority and reputation behind them. But is that concern warranted, and given that the Wikipedia is slowly finding a home in classrooms across Australia, what do teachers really need to know about the Wikipedia?
How the Wikipedia Works
From the outset, it is useful to remember that the Wikipedia is just one example, albeit the most well-known, of a website which uses wiki software. A wiki, by definition, is type of software which powers websites and allows anyone to edit and contribute. The wiki software that provides the architecture for the Wikipedia is called MediaWiki and is freely downloadable and reusable (see MediaWiki.org) although that requires server-space and a reasonable level of technical skill. If you’re interested in trying out a wiki, or using a free wiki in teaching, pbworks.com is a good place to start, providing basic wiki functionality for free (and more comprehensive tools for teaching for a fee).
The Wikipedia itself was launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, taking its name from the combination of the words wiki and encyclopaedia. The aim of the Wikipedia is fairly simple: to produce and continually improve an online encyclopaedia that is free for anyone to use and, most importantly, can be edited by anyone. After a slow start, the Wikipedia today features over 3.3 million articles in English, with articles in hundreds of languages and it is one of the most popular reference works in the world.
Since the range of articles in the Wikipedia is largely dependant on the interest of contributors (referred to as Wikipedians), the coverage is often uneven; popular culture, recent historical events, and technical issues tend to be very well represented while less topical or more geographically-specific material can be sparse. For example, the Wikipedia entry for the current run of the popular BBC series Top Gear is more than five times longer and has more than three times the references compared to the article for Australian novelist Tim Winton. More to the point, since Wikipedia entries tend to grow over time though the contributions of many editors, newer entries are often less reliable, while those which have been edited and critiqued by a range of Wikipedians tend to be more reliable. The question of reliability, though, given the huge range of people who might contribute to, or ostensibly damage, an article, remains the most divisive issue for lovers and haters of the Wikipedia.
The Reliability Question
While the idea that anyone can edit the Wikipedia causes many people to scoff at the idea of it having any credibility whatsoever, this presumption has actually been tested far less often than it should be. In 2004, Alex Halavais, an assistant professor at Quinnipiac University, looked in to the question of the Wikipedia’s credibility and was surprised to find almost no research on the issue whatsoever. After an online discussion, he decided to test out the speed at which the numerous editors of the Wikipedia would actually be able to fix mistakes. Halavais created a pseudonym and a Wikipedia profile as ‘Dr al-Halawi’ and made 13 deliberate errors, some obvious and some obscure. He predicted that within two weeks many of these errors would remain undetected. However, within several hours, all of the deliberate errors were identified by other Wikipedians and those errors were removed.
Writing in his blog (alex.halavais.net), Halavais noted that he was genuinely impressed by the speed and effectiveness with which the Wikipedia entries were corrected. While he conceded that his experiment didn’t ‘prove’ that the Wikipedia was reliable for everything, he did highlight the time and effort many people put into the Wikipedia, and that editors often also see themselves as guardians of particular articles, even obscure ones.
It’s worth explaining that one of the functions all registered Wikipedia users have access to is something called a Watchlist. Whenever an article on a user’s watchlist is edited by someone else, the watchlist user is sent a message and, upon notification, many Wikipedians will immediately examine the new material. In the cases of obvious vandalism or error, these errors are often ‘rolled back’ within minutes (that is, the Wikipedia entry is returned to the previous version before the errors were made). For more popular articles, Wikipedians with watchlists can be extremely effective, but even the more obscure articles often end up with one or two watchers, ensuring that obvious errors tend not to last that long. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, especially for entries which not of ongoing interest to the Wikipedians who originally created them.
In December 2005, a more substantial and widely reported study was undertaken by the leading scientific journal Nature. Articles from the Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the same topics were collected and then sent for blind-review to experts on those topics; the experts were not told which articles were from which source. While there were a few substantial errors in either, on average Wikipedia entries tended to have roughly 4 inaccuracies, while the same entries from the Encyclopaedia Britannica had approximately 3 errors. The results suggested that neither Wikipedia nor Britannica was flawless, but that the reliability gap between the two was fairly small. Indeed, given the seemingly haphazard manner in which Wikipedia entries and created and refined, the Nature study has been hailed by many commentators as evidence of impressive collective intelligence of Wikipedians, and of Wikipedia’s success and credibility.
The Nature examination also highlighted the biggest difference between the two sources: while errors in Britannica would have to wait until the next hardcopy edition was created, Wikipedia entries could be fixed instantly. Indeed, it is the speed at which the Wikipedia entries can appear and develop which is often mentioned as its greatest strength. And while neither the experiments of Halavais or Nature suggest Wikipedia is perfect, it appears almost as reliable as its well-respected hardcopy competitors.
The Neutrality Question
One of the core principles of the Wikipedia is that articles should be factual and be written using a Neutral Point of View (or NPOV). This policy ensures, for example, that any claims made without the appropriate sources or references can be easily identified and removed. However, given the breadth of material covered and the number of editors, the ideal of objectivity or neutrality is a difficult one to maintain. The entry on global warming, for example, has a long history of changes and arguments between editors which has, at times, led to certain Wikipedians being blocked from editing the entry. Similarly, while the Wikipedia could easily be used as a promotional tool or for self-aggrandisement, autobiography and obvious conflicts of interest are highly discouraged. The only exception to these guidelines is the right to correct obvious factual errors.
In 2007 the Howard government was wrapped up in its own scandal when a new website launched (unaffiliated with the Wikipedia) called the WikiScanner. The Wikiscanner highlights how many changes to the Wikipedia come from any particular internet address. Journalists and others quickly pounced on this tool and found that staff in Prime Minster Howard’s department had been actively editing unfavourable entries, including those about the 2001 Children Overboard Affair and the biography of Peter Costello. The Wikiscanner also revealed thousands of changes originating from computers in Australia’s Defence Department, although this practice was quickly clamped down on, with official Defence Department rules now preventing changes being made (while at work, at least). While many of the changes were either predictable (like inserting the word allegedly into reports about the Children Overboard Affair) or inconsequential, the fact that the Howard government or the Defence Department would bother to edit the Wikipedia is a clear indication of the wide impact the Wikipedia has had across Australia and the wider world.
In 2005 one of the most biggest controversies to hit the Wikipedia erupted when well-respected US journalist and political figure John Seigenthaler had it brought to his attention that the Wikipedia entry about him falsely accused Seigenthaler of being linked to the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. At issue was not just the false information, which was removed fairly quickly after the hoax entry was exposed, but the fact that the erroneous entry had last for 4 months before someone noticed the problem. Seigenthaler’s reputation and the obviously false accusations were something of a blow to the Wikipedia, and the issue of Wikipedia’s reliability again became a hot topic in the media. In response to the Seigenthaler incident, the Wikipedia introduced new safeguards which meant some entries were protected from editing, while others could only be edited by trusted Wikipedians who had proven their reliability with a history of useful contributions. This is illustrated, for example, in that immediately before and during the inauguration of Barack Obama, the entries both for Obama and George W Bush were in ‘semi-protected’ mode. This mode means only Wikipedians who’ve made non-controversial edits to more than 10 articles over a period of time and have thus earned a level of trust, can edit these biographies. The biographical entries for many current and recent political figures are in semi-protected mode, as this prevents anonymous users, first-time users and automated scripts from altering and vandalising content. While these restrictions alter the ‘anyone can edit’ philosophy behind the Wikipedia, the changes do offer a higher level of credibility and reliability, especially surrounding hot topics and public figures, trying to maintain the ideal of neutrality.
Using Wikipedia in the Classroom
So with the caveats about credibility and neutrality in mind, what place can the Wikipedia have in the classroom? More to the point, given that many of our students are using it whether endorsed by their teachers or not, how can we try and ensure that, at the very least, students approach the Wikipedia with a critical eye?
In trying to understand the Wikipedia, the most obvious approach is to try and design a project in which students edit or create a Wikipedia page. Such a project ensures that students get first-hand experience of everything from logging in, to creating content and then working with whatever alterations or contributions come from the broader Wikipedian community. The success or failure of such a project will often hinge on carefully considering the topic to create or explore. For example, editing the biography of John Howard might be interesting, but students are likely to come up against a fairly detailed existing entry and there will probably be quite a few vested Wikipedians watching over this entry; this, in turn, might see contributions from the classroom quickly overturned. However, one of the least well-documented areas of in the Wikipedia is often local history. So a project, for example, which involved students researching their local suburb’s history, or the history of a significant community landmark or event, is far more likely to be of value both as a project and to the Wikipedia itself. Wikipedia’s policy of ensuring material is referenced would require students to do decent research, while creating a local historical entry could add both to their understanding of local history and their understanding of the Wikipedia. Wikipedians themselves suggest that one of the best ways for teachers to introduce the Wikipedia is for the whole class to use a single username and password. This allows teachers to moderate and, if needs be, to remove student contributions. If you’re considering trying out using the Wikipedia as a classroom activity, it’s worth taking a look at the Wikipedia’s guide for teachers, at: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Schools/Teachers%27_Guide.
Another possibility, rather than creating entries, is to study the Wikipedia as both a cultural and social entity. Making such a study of real value are some of the greatest assets of the Wikipedia, which are not the entries themselves, but the editorial histories which are linked to each and every Wikipedia entry. Every article has an associated Discussion and History page (accessed via tabs at the top of each entry). The Discussion page (often just called Talk) is the place where Wikipedians can propose, discuss, argue and critique changes and suggested changes to articles. These pages can sometimes be banal, but often they reveal a great deal about the way people think about particular topics; these discussions can also serve as a compass in measuring what the debates are surrounding certain topics or subjects. Similarly, the History page shows the detail of each and every change made to an entry since it was first created, including any instances where the entry was ‘rolled back’ to a previous version after a contribution that was not judged worthy by other users. Again, this depth of editorial knowledge can reveal a great deal about how certain topics are explored and the way entries have evolved. Beyond individual entries and their histories, studying the Wikipedia as an entity is made far more interesting by examining the Wikimedia Foundation, who run the Wikipedia; in a community of peers, they the ones who still hold unrivalled power in over the online encyclopaedia. Jimmy Wales, the remaining founder of the Wikipedia, is also a colourful and at times controversial character in his own right. It is worth noting that as part of the Global Village elective in this year’s English syllabus for the NSW HSC the Wikipedia itself is suggested as an object of study and amongst the suggested pages are those which discuss the Wikimedia Foundation, not just individual entries.
The final suggested classroom activity is for students to undertake a detailed analysis of an individual Wikipedia entry, often one which is on a currently controversial or topical issue. If, as the Nature investigation revealed, most Wikipedia entries have some errors, what might those errors be? If students were starting from scratch on a particular topic, how would they approach their research? Is this approach reflected in the Wikipedia entry, or do their plans already reveal deficiencies in the information available? What impact does the Wikipedia’s neutrality policy have on what information is and isn’t part of that particular entry? And how accurately, or meaningfully, does the Wikipedia entry reflect the history or impact of that subject today? In comparing the Wikipedia entries with other sources, not only are students likely to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the Wikipedia, but they’re also likely to develop broader insight into the way information is presented in different sources, both online and in more traditional forms. This critical literacy may, in fact, be of far more value than any single investigation of the Wikipedia whatsoever as it may help teach students one of the most important lessons: that all sources should be approached critically, regardless of their supposed origins. Errors are always possible, and if an investigation into the Wikipedia can highlight the subjective nature of all information, that insight will serve students far beyond the immediate project they’re undertaking.
The appropriateness of the Wikipedia as a classroom tool or project will always depend on the specificities of that teaching environment, but given the widespread impact of the Wikipedia, it seems better to study it and highlight its strengths and weaknesses rather than ignore it altogether. Another way to get a firmer grip on the Wikipedia is to seek out a the recently published How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It by Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates (No Starch Press, 2008) which was written by three long-time Wikipedians and gives a wealth of insight into the inner workings of the Wikipedia, as well as best practice for new users and educators seeking to use the Wikipedia for the first time. However, the single most important thing to remind students is that despite being online, the Wikipedia aspires to being an excellent encyclopaedia; simply citing an encyclopaedia without further research has never led to good marks and that’s unlikely to change any time soon, be it an online encyclopaedia or otherwise. Every Wikipedia entry cites its sources, following these is where real research can often begin.