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Random Thoughts on Wikipedia’s Birthday Today

Today, January 15, 2011, is the tenth anniversary of Wikipedia. My, how things have changed in 10 years. It is amazing how Wikipedia has disrupted information publishing, polarized educators about its value, and changed the way things work.

Here’s a few soundbites and stories that have come to my ears:

1. At the Top Tech Trends panel discussion in San Diego last weekend, one of the panelists told an interesting story of an assignment from one of his kid’s teachers. The assignment was to introduce errors into (I think) five Wikipedia entries. I think the assignment’s point was to create a learning experience for the students to see how easy it is to introduce errors into Wikipedia and therefore to distrust the source. The kids needed to bring in proof that they had made the errors stick in Wikipedia. Of course, you already know the result. Every time the kid put an error into a record it as corrected, usually within minutes so providing a URL with the error was pointless. I know I used to introduce errors into the US Civil War entries in Wikipedia on stage at speeches. It never happened that they weren’t caught and corrected within minutes while I was on stage. So, what does the student learn from this exercise? I suspect not what the teacher’s goal was but something quite different. I wonder if the teacher had ever attemtped to create or edit a record on Wikipedia or if they were just following a plan based on old or prejudiced information.

2. Another teacher’s exercise that I am familiar with was more concrete. Students were asked in groups to create a Wikipedia entry of their own choosing based on research they performed in the library in print, online, and on the web. They were to learn how to make a WIkipedia entry and how to build it up using sources and links/footnotes. They were then to see how it went through the various states of approval and moved from probationary status forward. Marks were based on whether it was of high quality?; Did it engage other editors?; Did it progress?; Did it get picked up by the search engines?, etc. The learning here was, of course, superior and these students could dance rings around others with their experientially informed opinions and viewpoints about the topic and Wikipedia.

3. On another point I have heard that Wikipedia is a factor in the Google and other search results rankings. This is an argument for ensuring that your library has a Wikipedia entry and remains active. I recall being at one major, prestigious, world-ranked university where the library was described as a 200 item collection on the bookshelves in the student union. This was the major first page hit about this university library on the Google results list. Clearly, that library quickly remedied their lack of a presence in Wikipedia.

4. Everyone knows that a major study by Nature Magazine found Wikipedia had a similar error rate (about 4%) to Encyclopedia Britiannica. What is rarely highlighted is that the study had to start with Britanica entries. Why? Well, Wikipedia has 3.5 million entries in English (much more when other languages are considered) and Britannica has about 1 million pages with 100,000’s thousands of articles. Finding comparators is much easier when you start with the smaller source. Wikipedia is more timely and has millions more entries so who would give that up, or at least choose to use mutiple encyclopedia and sources?

5. Anyway, I am finding it to be a sort of groupthink in some parts of the teaching profession to deride or ban Wikipedia. What a crock! When I was in school in dinosaurs’ days, those pre-web search engine times, we were encouraged to use encyclopedia, print indexes and dictionaries as sources to frame our plans and ideas and to get to the language and original sources that delighted my teachers. Citing encyclopedia in my essays was frowned upon since we were supposed to go to deeper sources and original sources and dig further. They didn’t ban EB like some fool, but they did frame its usefulness to my research trail. I was geeky (Lord I became a librarian!) so I did find the footnotes in EB, but it was hard to get to the original sources. I find that using the bibliographies and footonotes in Wikipedia leads me to sources that I would never discover in a web search and that add colour and learning to my work. And students can learn more analyzing the edit trail in Wikipedia about political life of information and points of view if they’re pointed in that direction. To deny access to Wikipedia by students only serves to drive it underground, breed disrepsect for the teacher’s skills, and miss the opportunity to deliver learning experiences that will model real life when the exit formal education.

Some Links:

Wikipedia Celebrates 10 Years, But Will It Survive Another Decade?

10th Anniversary of Wikipedia

I want this t-shirt!

Anyway, there’s some personal thoughts on Wikipedia for a snowy Saturday.


Posted on: January 15, 2011, 12:00 pm Category: Uncategorized

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