Come to Terms with Open Content (and Wikipedia)

[This is an entry from my Web Literacy online class that reads more like a blog than a tutorial. It’s not a new topic but I hope it is a good read.]

Wikipedia is a controversial tool for many educators. It is representative of a broad set of Web 2.0 tools, the open content model, where virtually anyone can contribute to the content–this causes many educators to question its reliability.  Yet the impact of Web 2.0 on the world of information is dramatic, representative of Alan November’s quip at the 2009 TIE Conference keynote: the old model of a couple of experts coming together to write the “truth” for the rest of us is just about done.

The model of how Wikipedia content is created does bring forward an important question: what is more accurate–a large number of articles reviewed by a small number of professional editors, or a large number of articles reviewed by thousands/millions of advocate editors? (Nature magazine brought the controversy to the forefront when it did a small test of this concept by comparing Wikipedia to Britannica. Also read David Thornburg’s On Wikipedia and the Meaning of Everything.)

There are several educational strengths about Wikipedia (and the open content model in general) I would courage educators to consider before they restrict students from using/citing it. For one, do not underestimate the importance of timeliness with Wikipedia. At the time of this writing, the entry for Somali Pirates already referenced UN resolutions passed just one day prior. Some articles, such as a current space shuttle mission, are constantly updating, literally up to the minute as the event occurs. For example, the swine flu outbreak brought this notice at the top of the article:


This timeliness makes Wikipedia a much more relevant tool to its readers, not only compared to print encyclopedias but even compared to electronic “static” resources. Microsoft’s Encarta, the very product that dramatically impacted the paper encyclopedia world  15 years ago by emphasizing the shift from paper to multimedia disc, will cease to exist after this year largely due to Wikipedia and the open content world.

Another aspect of Wikipedia educators should not underestimate–there is a power to making a personal contribution to a body of knowledge, a sense of community not achieved by  static publishing. Collaborative writing creates a different perception of ownership–a work becomes “our” writing, as opposed to “my” writing and “your” writing. It requires a mind-shift that many educators have not experienced yet.

One practice of Wikipedia that more publishers should follow is the use of  notices explaining  potential  weaknesses of articles concerning controversial topics:


Another example–Wikipedia supports efforts to reduce systemic bias in some articles posted:


Wikipedia openly addresses issues and complexities inherent in many of it’s articles in a manner almost  refreshing compared to traditional media. How many of our textbooks  provide that type of disclaimer?

Another advantage to Wikipedia is that virtually all articles list their original source references, e.g.

This provides a great resource for students to move more quickly to primary sources for their work. Many savvy teachers may restrict students from citing Wikipedia in their research, yet will still direct them to use Wikipedia to find its references to research more deeply into the subject.

For teachers who believe that Wikipedia is unreliable, I challenge them to start a new topic entry in Wikipedia. I believe they will discover, as many of us have, that Wikipedia has fairly strict standards on format/content and is monitored much more closely than commonly believed. A second challenge would be to find 10 different errors in 10 different Wikipedia articles–my experience is that it takes a significant amount of time to find that many errors. The third challenge would be to compare content in Wikipedia with a 3-10 year old print encyclopedia commonly found in schools–the amount of information not correct or omitted in the print encyclopedia because of what has occurred since it was printed would far exceed the inaccuracies of Wikipedia.

Can inaccurate information be posted? Yes, it certainly does occur. The articles that get high viewer traffic,e.g.  Martin Luther King, Jr., have a hard time holding inaccurate information long before it gets corrected quickly. Articles that draw lower traffic, e.g. Wessington Springs, SD, are easier to post inaccuracies because they have fewer viewers. The underlying message for all of us, exemplified by the Nature article, is that we should be viewing all information with a critical eye, not just Wikipedia.

Wikipedia certainly deserves a level of skepticism by educators, but do not overlook its amazing strengths. Open content information can be a great resource for educators and students when used appropriately. Focusing  entirely on potential inaccuracies is a myopic view, overlooking the important reason students and adults like Wikipedia– you can get answers to your questions much more quickly than traditional media. Tech savvy students understand the potential weaknesses of Wikipedia. Yet if these students have positive experiences getting timely information, imagine their frustration when they are told at school they cannot use this resource because of the possibility it might be inaccurate. It is the educators who lose credibility, not Wikipedia.

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