The reasonable use of Wikipedia is an ongoing discussion in my EAP program, exemplifying the broader discussion happening throughout academia. I say “reasonable use” because it is blatantly obvious that when one wants information quickly, Wikipedia provides it. For this reason, I’ve been giving some thought about how to work with instead of against it.
About a year ago, I read a post by Noah Geisel on TeachPaperless entitled “The Wikipedia Dilemma”. Geisel argues prohibiting Wikipedia from our courses entirely being ultimately detrimental to students. Doing so does not further a pinnacle of academic learning: seeking, evaluating, and sythesising information for an informed argument. Good point, I thought.
More recently, I used an article entitled “What to Do with Wikipedia” by Trinity Western College associate librarian, William Badke, for an ARC text. In it, Badke discusses the controversy Wikipedia causes among academics and the resulting confusion for students who see it as common sense resource. “Rather than throwing rocks at it,” he suggests, “the academy has a unique opportunity to engage Wikipedia in a way that marries the digital generation with the academic enterprise.” Good point, I thought.
Teaching how to evaluate sources to a generation who never knew life without instant access to information is a nebulous, but fascinating task as an EAP teacher. We all have our favourite articles that show extremes of bias, texts that seem plausible but have hidden motivations, and activities that compare topically-related websites, one reliable and one not. What they rarely do is connect to Wikipedia itself. Since it is the #1 source used, it makes sense to help students gain insight into how the information gets there. As a result, I’ve put together a wiki activity to experientially introduce students to the very basics of crowd-sourced knowledge.
Objective: Students create a wiki page detailing events as agreed upon by consensus.
- Set up a wiki, for example on Pbworks. Make accounts for all students. It’s free and requires no self-hosting services. (If you can host it yourself, check out MediaWiki, the platform that powers Wikipedia.) For student accounts, it’s easy: just ‘Add Users’ and choose the ‘class list’ option. You only need to enter names so it generates unique logins and passwords for each student on a printout that you can give to them.
- Form group pages for your students on the wiki site. If you have a class of more than 6 students, it can be unwieldly if they are not in groups. Make a group page on the wiki site for each group. I’ve set them up for my students here, as an example.
- Choose an event that students attend as the content for the wiki site, but don’t tell them. This could be a lecture, an outside event or even your own classes that week. The key is that it must be something the students experience first-hand. It may be helpful in the long run for extension activities to assign different events for each group.
- After the event, groups create their wiki pages about the event.
a. Give students their wiki site logins and passwords.
b. Task each group to create content on their wiki page that details what happened at the event in #3 accurately and in detail for someone who was not there. To do this, they each should log on individually to give input as they remember it. Group members need to negotiate the final product through the wiki site itself. Through this negotiation, there should ultimately be just one account of events per group.
Features of the wiki: Students can use the Comments section of the page to discuss revisions made. Each edit to the page is saved in the “pages history”, logging what the edit is, when it happened and who did it. Pages can be reverted to previous versions easily should an edit be rejected by the group. This process may take several days as it may be a challenge to come to an agreement about what actually happened. It might be interesting just to let students discover these features themselves. See figures for visual examples.
Through this series of edits and revisions, students will be involved in an example of the process by which information becomes part of a Wikipedia page: initial page, edits and revisions by others, acceptance or rejection of revisions, and more edits and revisions, each (hopefully) improving the neutrality and reliability of the previous version.
Extensions to the activity
- Groups investigate other group pages. Have them check the “pages history” to see what contributions were made by group members. Do the revisions show the majority of contribution from one member compared to an even split among them? What has been discussed in the comments pages, if anything? Are the events described neutrally or are there obvious opinions still included?
- Make one central event page. Repeat the process with all groups editing a central event page based on what individual group pages suggest.
- Add citations to the pages. Challenge students to add citations that back up any information on their page. This works if the event was public or there is information online about it that can be linked to.
- Reuse the wiki with another class. If you have new classes, repeat this exercise, but this time there is an existing account of the events on the wiki. New groups use it as a base to improve the record of events.
This is one small example of introducing students to the idea of collaborative writing, revising to form a group consensus and gaining insight into the reliability of Wikipedia entries.
Geisel, N. (2011) The Wikipedia Dilemma, TeachPaperless. [blog] posted November 24, 2011. Available at http://teachpaperless.blogspot.ca/2011/11/wikipedia-dilemma.html
Badke, W. (2008) “What to do with Wikipedia.” Online 32, no. 2 (2008): 48-50. Available at http://www.infotoday.com/online/mar08/Badke.shtml