In their article “Wikipedia: Friend, Not Foe,” Crovitz and Smoot offer an in-depth discussion of topics I touched on in a previous post. They discuss the pushback against Wikipedia coming from certain teachers, school districts, and even universities. Choosing to discourage the use of the site or blocking it outright is perhaps to miss out on a valuable teaching opportunity. In preventing students from using the site, teachers are denying students the chance to explore “writing for a real audience, meeting genre expectation, establishing credibility, revising for clarity and purpose, and entering public discussions about the nature of truth, accuracy, and neutrality” (91). Sure, that quote kind of makes it seem like Wikipedia is the best thing to happen to teachers since the overhead projector, and could perhaps be glossed over with a “yeah whatever” attitude. These guys are just a couple of technophiles touting the wonderful brave new world of web 2.0. Right? Not so fast.
Consider the idea of writing for a real audience. In a typical academic setting, students are always urged to think of their audience when writing. They might even be told that this is “the number one rule.” I agree. Considering your audience is vital to your writing. But students are continually writing for an audience of one: the teacher. They will write what they think will get them a good grade, and I don’t blame them, but perhaps contributing to a collaborative real-world project like Wikipedia will give purchase to this notion of writing for an audience.
Contributing to Wikipedia also requires students to write in a particular style or genre: an encyclopedic one. Again, developing the ability to write in multiple genres (persuasive, expository, narrative, etc.) is strongly encouraged by teachers. In fact, state standards stipulate that students must be taught to write in different genres, so it’s something they’re going to do anyway. Why not provide an arena that illustrates a real-life application of what they’re doing in class?
Ah, the issue of credibility. No doubt this is at the heart of much of the administrative concern engendered by Wikipedia. The poor helpless students will get online and then just include any old thing in a paper. Possibly. But there are people at schools that get paid (not enough) to help guide students through the research process. A key component to that process is establishing the credibility of sources. Preventing students from using Wikipedia won’t keep them from using the rest of the web where it is just as important (or more) to evaluate source credibility. Moreover, credibility is not guaranteed with conventional sources that could be biased or out of date. Instead of removing an opportunity for instruction, seize it.
Admittedly, all is not perfect on Wikipedia. There are plenty of sprawling, clunky entries that lack refinement. Entries unworthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia are not uncommon. Sometimes the length and depth of entries are disproportionate to their significance. Check out the entry for the reality TV show Top Chef. Apparently a lot of people really care about that show. The point is that all of these problems offer students an opportunity to think about the importance of clear, purposeful writing and then go edit and improve.
Finally, allowing students to consider Wikipedia as a worldwide collaborative effort that has drawbacks as well as benefits is a great way to get them thinking critically. Contemplating the nature of truth or neutrality might not be common practice for a lot of students. Wikipedia might just provide a springboard for meaningful and insightful discussion that leads to discovery.