Collaborative learning: Wikipedia

Wikipedia, the ever-growing online encyclopedia keeps coming up in conversation.

A common complaint is that there are errors in Wikipedia. Some people will counter that with an argument that the Encyclopedia Britannica may (or may not) have more errors in it. Others will point out that some articles are hotly contested, and not definitive. Or perhaps that Wikipedia is uneven in which pages are created, maintained and built upon (it’s heavy on pop-culture and technology for example).

These arguments miss the point. Wikipedia is not a replacement for the venerable library, published books, or peer-reviewed journals. It is a quick place to start looking at topic. A place to look up a new word, or a place to confirm a fact during an argument about how many wives Henry VIII really had. As one of my colleagues said in a meeting a couple of days ago, it is a good place to start, but a bad place to stop your research.

Wikipedia’s strength is in it’s immediacy. Articles are quickly updated with breaking news. In it’s controversy. Some truths are just commonly accepted interpretations, and those are debated in public. In it’s democracy. If you don’t agree with the article or find it lacking, you can synthesize your knowledge, analyze what is lacking, and be a contributor. It showcases good practices (citations are needed to back up assertions), requires analysis and synthesis from the writer, and critical thinking from the reader.

It’s not something that should be cited in a research paper, but it could make a good assignment. Edit an existing entry, and explain why you chose that page, what was missing, what you chose to add, and what was deems irrelevant. Return a week later and see what has been changed. Did you agree with the edits? Did they bring up a forgotten fact, a new link to resources or a re-interpretation of something?

I’ll continue to defend that Wikipedia has a place at a university. And we can make it a learning tool instead of making it the enemy.

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