Teaching administrators about Wikipedia

[cross-linked at the TechLearning blog]

Last year a middle school librarian in New Jersey received a lot of media attention for her anti-Wikipedia campaign:

Linda O'Connor regards Wikipedia the same way former first lady Nancy Reagan campaigned against drugs. . . . She put up a sign saying "Just Say No to Wikipedia" over the computers in the school library. . . . Wikipedia is blocked on all computers in the Warren Hills Regional School District.

At the time I said that I was highly skeptical about this librarian's stance. On any given day, approximately 1 in 10 Internet users visits Wikipedia. This fact alone should indicate that there's something going on worth paying attention to, something that warrants a more nuanced approach than simply prohibiting access. If it was terrible, it wouldn’t maintain its audience. Folks who take the time to understand Wikipedia learn very quickly that it's actually an amazing site. It's already 8 times larger than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, is growing incredibly quickly, and has been created entirely by volunteers. Peer-reviewed studies published in our top scientific journals have shown that it is as accurate as the Brittanica too, particularly those articles that reside in its mainstream core (rather than at the fringes).

If all of this is true, then why are so many educators, librarians, and media specialists upset about Wikipedia? I think the concerns stem from several different sources. One is their beliefs about accuracy. We tend to assume that print materials such as the Brittanica and school textbooks are error-free when in actuality they contain numerous mistakes. Even when identified, these mistakes usually linger until the next edition is printed and purchased (unlike Wikipedia which corrects known mistakes almost instantly). Second, the idea that volunteers can create something as valuable as that created by experts strikes us as ludicrous. But in this case it happens to be true. Sure, at any given second, some vandal or incompetent may have inserted something inaccurate into a particular article. But over time (and often unbelievably quickly), Wikipedia is remarkably self-healing, unlike the paper materials on our bookshelves. Wikipedia also is a counter to outdated information. How many of the reference books in libraries and school media centers contain incomplete or inaccurate information simply because they're old? Wikipedia doesn't have that problem.

Our students deserve better training about how to navigate our new, complex, online information landscape. They don't learn about information literacy, bias, media literacy, assessment of online validity, and other critical online skills by being denied access to that information. They don't learn how to cite and use online resources appropriately if they can't use those resources and learn from their mistakes because the materials are banned.

If you take half an hour to show administrators these things, their mindset changes. I like to have school leaders visit some Wikipedia pages with me. I start by showing them the asphalt article. After we look at the article itself, I show them the history tab (and take them all the way back to the first few revisions) and then the discussion tab. We talk about what we see and what their perceptions are regarding accuracy, quality, and neutrality. Then I put them into groups to check out more controversial articles like Sarah Palin, Islam, Vladimir Putin, or Pluto. They examine the articles for bias and inaccuracy and spend some time in the history and discussion areas.

The administrators inevitably walk away with a deeper understanding of Wikipedia and a greater appreciation for the safeguards that have evolved to protect against abuse and inaccuracy. Many of them also begin to see the site as an excellent lens for teaching students about how, as a society, we construct knowledge, negotiate meaning, and develop collective understanding. Some even begin to think about how their students might be able to serve as Wikipedia contributors. In the end, that richer understanding may be more valuable than the content of the articles themselves.

How are you using Wikipedia to teach information literacy and critical thinking?

16 Responses to “Teaching administrators about Wikipedia”

  1. I conducted a wiki workshop today that brought to light a number of teacher misconceptions about Wikipedia. I discussed all of the points you mentioned today and focused on the fact that the volunteer community really works to vet out inaccuracies. By the end of the workshop, I think the message was resonating and they are now seeing Wikipedia in a new light as well as seeing the true value of wikis for collaboration in and out of the classroom.

  2. On a somewhat more philosophical level, I am a little disturbed at any decision in education to block access to that which we do not like or agree with. The irony that it would happen in a library is a little to thick for me.

    It is possibly one last-ditch effort to try to maintain a level of control over “the message”. Unfortunately schools have held too dearly to the concept of controlling the message, delivering the message, being the giver of the message – it is a game which cannot be won.

  3. I agree with what you’re saying, but have to question the way your started your post. Both your statements “On any given day, approximately 1 in 10 Internet users visits Wikipedia” and more specifically “If it was terrible, it wouldn’t maintain its audience” could be said of pornography.

  4. Interesting article. The “Wikipedia Debate” has always held my interest as an educator. To add my two cents:

    The 2 in web 2.0 stands for the “more than one” aspect of the new web. We are not to be observers; we are to *be* the new web. The librarian cutting off access to Wikipedia is indefensible not merely because it’s a source of knowledge, but because Wikipedia is the ultimate educational tool. What better way to have students “prove it” than to set up/maintain a Wikipedia page? One of my highest (unwritten) goals as an educator is to get every one of my students to become expert enough on a subject and competent enough as a communicator to adopt a Wikipedia page. What other performance assessment hits so many Big Picture Goals? Step 1. Find something you’re passionate about (learning becomes meaningful); Step 2. Become an expert on that passion (research, build new learning); Step 3. Protect your passion (lifelong learner).

  5. I have a session, “What You Don’t Know About Wikipedia,” where I outline many of the same points you made above. After that, I discuss with the group the skill of discernment of information, and we move on to data triangulation with Wikipedia as our starting point.

    After we finish, I ask them to imagine doing the same activities with students– and how much the students would be learning about information literacy, beyond the mere topic they’re researching.

    A classroom creating its own Wikipedia entry is an amazing way to reinforce these concepts!

  6. A lot of the things that Teachers will eventually use Wikipedia for have little to do with accessing articles via keywords searches.

    For instance, I’m a co-founder of a startup working on a computer-assisted method of generating quiz material directly from Wikipedia.

    We can also use blogs or news websites, but the succinct prose of Wikipedia works particularly well.

    If you’d like, you can try a demo that we’ve been using for our own hiring process:


    To try taking a plopquiz, click on the ad in the right sidebar, and then click the Apply Now button.

  7. I think it was Will Richardson who began a presentation by making a factually incorrect edit to a Wikipedia page. At the end of the 1/2 hour (or so) presentation, he went back to the page to show the audience that it had been changed back by another “editor” (or, perhaps, edited multiple times as indicated by the history page). I think this approach demonstrates the power of Wikipedia, but also gives it some legitimacy/credibility to skeptics.

  8. From the wisdom of Seth Godin:

    It’s easy to be against something
    …that you’re afraid of.
    And it’s easy to be afraid of something that you don’t understand.


  9. I tend to focus on the discussions that go on about the articles. I draw on my background as an English teacher who ran writing workshops…I always wanted my students to engage in the level of discussion about their writing from word choice to bias to using sources.

  10. While I agree that one draw of Wikipedia is its “self-healing” and the fact that it’s never outdated, this is only true if it acknowledges the way that perceptions have changed regarding a particular body of knowledge. Errors are a critical part of learning and I would hate to see Wikipedia “fix” all mistakes without some transparency. Overall, I think Wikipedia does a good job tracing the history of ideas, but this is definitely one aspect of the education process that we cannot afford to overlook.

  11. Dear Scott,

    Thank you for this excellent post, and the other post that connected to it, regarding the value of Wikipedia, but more to the point of those who have a “knee-jerk” reaction against it.

    We have some professors here at Missouri State who forbid their students from using Wikipedia as a research source. I have commented in my classes that I don’t agree with this view and that my students are free to use Wikipedia as they would any other source–with critical review and careful analysis of the value of the material.

    Reading your blog post inspired me to post a message to my own blog about this topic, which can be found at

    Best wishes,
    Tim Hadley
    English Department
    Missouri State University

  12. Many librarians have told me that the reason they work to have it blocked is because it’s their JOB to teach students how to find primary sources and trustworthy sources. THERE is where we push back. We believe Wikipedia to be as trustworthy as anything else, and we’ve got studies to support that. But, this flies in the face of everything they were taught. I guess it’ll take a while to have them view it differently.

    But, when I do workshops I ask if they block Wikipedia. Some raise their hands. Then I ask if they block Conservapedia they stare into space. Conservapedia? I would sure argue that if they block the one they’d SURE better block the other, too, wouldn’t you say?

  13. The unthinking brain is our villain, not our choice of medium. As an interesting but related tangent, have you noticed how Yahoo! Glue lists Wikipedia results first on their results pages? If Wikipedia was such an biased and errant source, I daresay that Yahoo would have given it such a prominent place in their beta. Something to consider.

  14. Contrary to many of your beliefs, students are not angels that use technology as it is intended to be used. The school at which I work has been banned by Wikipedia due to students posting random “information.” At the middle school level, many students do not have the background knowledge of source bias and credibility to discern information validity. They copy and paste information rather than research. It isn’t that they have not been taught to scrutinize source validity and bias, but that they believe that Wikipedia has thousands of agents sitting at computers screening each submission as it is posted to ensure that the submission is accurate. Then they argue that misconception as truth. Why not encourage students to use current journals and articles as references as well as or instead of Wikipedia?
    I would not say that those requiring students to find knowledge elsewhere are unthinking or stuck in their ways. Educators know their students best. Most will take the easy way out if offered.
    Heaven forbid we ever live in a world without the internet. This generation would not know how to pick up a publication.

  15. Many things look good on paper – many things even appear to work well over a given span of time…

    Wikipedia is a great concept with a rather tender achilles heal – a heal that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be banned from schools and libraries, just one that indicates it needs to be watched for a period of time – like a few lifetimes….

    Even before the Gutenburg press, any publishing of information had a board of overseers to guide and manage the information for truth, integrity, validity and results. Wikipedia allows anyone to edit; no one person or one board of overseers can dicatate, manage or control what is published – it is up to “We the People” of any country as to what to establish as the ‘correct’ information.

    Copernicus would have loved this concept if some how it could have been made available then… So wouldn’t have Columbus, Lewis & Clark, Cortez, Teddy Roosevelt, the Continental Congress. Not so sure about Marie Antoinette, Napolean Bonaparte, Atilla the Hun, Hitler, Mussilini, Stalin – but that’s my two cents worth…

    Back to the achilles heal…

    Can society be trusted to govern itself with information that should be reliable, not to mention timeless as well (as much as possible)?

    Yes, I know definitions change over time – the thought here is: as noted by the Did You Know presentation, should defined information change as rapidly as the world changes itself? If defined information is changing this rapidly, what can one trust as true – what do you trust, what can you trust if everything changes so quickly?

    That said, where is the constant – that anchor – we all so seek in our lives. That balance we all seem to miss until all the electricity goes out from a storm, or a storm just wipes out our community altogether?

    There’s something to be said for the stillness of a library, a book being read by the lake while relaxing, sitting in the living room reading anything without the TV or other elecronics going…

    Contemplation and meditation on innovative ideas are what made our country great – men, women and children alike had the luxury of time to let their ideas gel and evolve within their thoughts and paper before being sent out into the world… Today, an idea not acted upon and/or published quickly is soon a part of yesterdays news – killed before the seed of thought had time to even germinate…

    Wikipedia – great as a tool to supplement what we already have but in my eyes it has not proven itself to be a replacement for anything we already have… It is so like so many things we want today – pull in, order, pay the price and pull out in less than 2 minutes…

    Cynical? Maybe… But next time you’re stranded somewhere without electricty, without the everyday luxuries and entitlements we so take for granted – I believe you will see my cynicism will transform itself into reality…
    and you may find what you really have been missing.

  16. Jaclyn wrote:
    Heaven forbid we ever live in a world without the internet. This generation would not know how to pick up a publication.

    You know what’s interesting to me, though, Jaclyn: I think there will come a time when our (your?) definition of “publication” will change—and I don’t think that time is too far away!

    Digital publication—whether it be in forums like blogs or Wikipedia—are increasingly being accepted as a reliable source of information. Where 5 years ago, a blogger was mostly seen as someone “outside the mainstream,” today, they are often seen as intellectual equals of the formal publishing sources that we’ve all grown comfortable with.

    What does this mean for teachers? Librarians? How does our work need to change in a world where “publication” has been redefined?

    And a better question: What are you doing to get your kids ready for this new reality?!

    That’s something we all need to wrestle with.


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