When Wikipedia launched in 2001, the World Wide Web (that’s what we called it then) was just beginning to understand the power of collaboration. Wikipedia was a bold experiment and, like any new venture, it stumbled a bit at first. A vandal posted false and malicious information about John Seigenthaler, for example. Middle school students posted things like “Jasper has a big nose” (or worse) in the middle of articles. People with agendas made sure articles were written the way they wanted them. Teachers understandably began to chant a classroom mantra: “Don’t use Wikipedia. Anyone can edit it, so it’s not reliable.”
By 2005, Wikipedia had been found to be as reliable as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica. What happened?
Wikipedia learned from its initial missteps and established some guidelines, its Five Pillars of operation, along with evolving policies and guidelines. It is now a model for collaboration that teachers should be learning from. Instead of discouraging its use, we should be teaching students how to use Wikipedia effectively. For example, we should teach them to scroll to the bottom of the article and use the citations as a beginning bibliography of research sources. We should also teach them how to check the “Talk” page to discover controversies. Most important, we should teach them how to contribute responsibly.
Unfortunately, most teachers heard the first message but not the second. In many schools Wikipedia remains discouraged, forbidden, even blocked.
Wikipedia is flawed — what human endeavor isn’t? — but it is far from deserving the Untouchable status accorded it in many schools. A loosely-organized global group of volunteers is at work organizing the sum of human knowledge in 285 languages. In my book, that’s as much a Wonder of the World as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the city of Petra, or the Great Wall of China.
I’m participating in Kelly Hines’ Blogging Challenge. This is Day Eleven: “What is a website that you cannot live without?”