Wikipedia is meant to be a starting point, not a final source of knowledge. It is permanently incomplete and evolving, with continuous formal and informal review. Delving into that process, learners can explore critical reading, digital literacy and deep questions of knowledge. Dr Martin Poulter, Jisc Wikimedia ambassador, gives us his top ten tips for educators using Wikipedia…
1. Discuss and review
Discussion is central to Wikipedia. Click on “Talk” at the top of an article to see discussions, sometimes very extensive, about the article’s problems and how it could be improved. This link will also show the quality rating that Wikipedians have given the article. These formal and informal reviews are an opportunity to promote critical reading: get learners in the habit of reading these discussions and weighing in with their own comments.
2. Question the policies
Wikipedia requires originally-worded statements of fact with a citation to a reliable, published source which is independent of the thing written about. Each aspect of this definition can be explored and challenged in class discussion: why are many sources not “reliable”? What makes an article “neutral”? Why not just copy text from other sites? These questions can frame a discussion of general information literacy or of how scholarly values apply to a subject area.
The encyclopaedia’s many policies and guidelines are potential starting points. Reading the summary at the top of a policy, you can ask what that policy seeks to prevent and how it advances the site’s goal of summarising all human knowledge.
3. Look beyond the English language
There are more than 280 language versions of Wikipedia and their differences are a window onto cultural and linguistic variety. Ruth Page of the University of Leicester has used the English and Italian versions of the Murder of Meredith Kercher article to teach about the challenges of writing about controversial topics. An article’s language versions are linked from the bottom left on the desktop version. Manypedia is a tool for comparing different language versions of an article.
4. Look under the bonnet
A wiki stores all changes made to it. With the “View history” button you can see all the versions of an article and the differences between them. The evolution of a controversial article over time can show different agendas competing to shape the structure, sources and phrasing. The article history also shows when the article was vandalised and how long it took to be fixed. It is a way to get learners thinking of Wikipedia articles as contested and in flux rather than as fixed or finished.
If a learner improves the article, you can use article history to compare it before and after their involvement. The article history also has links that show who contributed to the article and how many people read it each day.
5. Look beyond Wikipedia
Wikipedia is just one of eleven sites creating freely-reusable, interlinked education and reference materials. The Wikimedia family includes Wikisource for texts, Wikibooks for manuals and Wikidata for facts and figures.
6. Create customised books
All pages on Wikimedia sites have a “Print/Export” link. One of the options is to “Create a book” by choosing a group of articles. The results can be exported in e-book formats such as PDF or, for a small charge, as physical books from a print-on-demand publisher. Phil Wane, an academic at Nottingham Trent University, uses this tool to create customised books for his courses about new media.
7. Make changes
The author Martin Gardner said that whenever he wanted to learn a subject, he wrote a book about it. Wikipedia offers that opportunity to any learner: if you really want to learn a topic then create or improve the Wikipedia article and get it reviewed. Educators at all levels are getting learners to do this, most often final-year undergraduates or beginning postgraduates. These assignments need careful planning to align the on-wiki activity with the course objectives and to get active support from Wikipedians. Wikimedia’s educator portal has tips, resources and case studies.
8. Wikimedia Commons
Digital media shared through Wikimedia Commons can be embedded in Wikipedia and other sites, reaching a massive public audience. With free licences, the copyright owner can keep ownership and specifies that any reuse has to involve attribution. Anything from a figure in a journal article to digitised historical documents could be put to work. You can even assign learners to create diagrams illustrating concepts for Wikipedia.
9. Ask for help
Wikimedia is not just a set of web sites but a set of communities. There are real people behind the screen, and many are keen to help. They can be useful in navigating Wikimedia’s often confusing rules, interfaces and culture. Jisc and Wikimedia UK can connect educators and researchers to appropriate Wikipedian expertise.
10. Take and use
All Wikimedia content – text, media and software – is free to reuse for any purpose. You have to obey the licences, usually explained at the foot of the page. Normally this will mean clearly attributing the owner and the licence. Wikimedia Commons currently has 20 million images, video clips and audio clips with an educational or research purpose, including many shared from cultural institutions or open access journals. Take a look at these ten extraordinary images from the Wikimedia Commons from Nicola Yeeles.