So it’s come to this…Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia, advises college students to avoid his creation. Before reading the article, check out Jeremy Boggs’ commentary on it and Roy Rosenzweig’s essay in the Journal of American History, “Can History Be Open Source?“. Finally, Scott McLemee’s take on Wikipedia is also worth perusing.
Should teachers ban their students from using Wikipedia? That will work about as well as the MPAA telling people that downloading movies is bad, bad, bad.
So, what’s a history teacher to do? The same things we’ve always done with new resources. We have to design learning opportunities for our students that help them to see the strengths and weaknesses of any resource. Of course, college and university students should not be using encyclopedias, regardless of the encyclopedia, for their research. But they will and we can’t stop them. My way around it is to have my students write or substantially entries in the Wikipedia and then track those entries over time. I’ve done it with grad students and this fall I’m going to do it with undergrads. The papers they write for me at the end of the semester will be about the intellectual choices they made when writing an encylopedia entry with the neutral point of view required by the WikiWorld. They’ll also have to track what happens to their entries after they put them up the first time and tell me what the changes others made to those entries. How did the meaning change? Is the past described in the current version of the entry different from the past described in their original entry?
I’ll be using this same assignment with a group of high school and middle school social studies department chairs this summer. It will be very interesting to see how their reactions to the Wikipedia might be similar or different to what I hear from my colleagues in post-secondary education.