Using Wikipedia to explore the development of facts

“Don’t use Wikipedia!” Educators at every level admonish students: “It isn’t accurate.” Never mind the temptation of plagiarizing. But such edicts at this point are akin to sticking our heads in the sand.

As the 5th most searched site globally, with around 8 billion page views a month in English alone, Wikipedia offers easy access “answers,” and plays a substantial role in shifting the site for knowledge acquisition and affecting the quality of knowledge production and dissemination. Scholars need to be paying more attention.

Those of us teaching did not grow up in anything near the same technological soup that the students we teach have. While this has always been to some degree the case, the degree of difference is arguably larger than it has been in the past century. While the challenge for educators is bigger than Wikipedia alone, in a “post-fact” era, we need to reframe how we think about both facts and the practice of teaching.

Students have access to more information than anyone could ever use at their fingertips. Pose a question and any student with a cell phone can find an answer in seconds. Of course the quality of the answer will vary wildly and therein lies a clue to the needed shift in our roles from fonts of knowledge to facilitators of learning. How do we sort fact from conjecture, opinion, or fiction? The “how” and “why” of learning as an ongoing process is more important than the “what” as we and our students are increasingly bombarded with “information.”

Admit it: the body of knowledge and our access to it in any area is now far beyond what any one person, even a specialist in a field, is able to fully absorb. I will certainly say that there is no way for me to fully keep up with all of the research in even one small sliver of my own field.

Just as scholars are constantly refining our own skills at sorting through the endless stream of information that comes our way in order to keep current, we need to be sharing more transparently with students (and even community members) how we decide what’s worth serious consideration and what is not and why.

The focus of our teaching needs to shift from emphasizing content to emphasizing how to make sense of any relevant materials while engaging students in practicing scholarly methods. The “how” has arguably been the secret sauce that we have traditionally expected students to figure out along the way, but the stakes have changed. Content overwhelms us. How to make sense of it is sorely needed.

Of course subject materials still matter. But sharing the process of curating course content matters at least as much when it comes to helping students understand how to think about the material that they run across outside of class. How do we equip them to carry on as intelligent citizens after they leave our classes?

We can bet that subject matter is expanding by the minute and that it is easily available in any number of ways from all sorts of perspectives—many of them monetized and politicized in less than useful ways. How to sort accurate from inaccurate information has grown increasingly difficult as marketing has turned our internet experiences into individualized media bubbles designed to sell us more than inform us. How do we help students gain the skills they will need to make good sense of it all?

Counter to the common educational edict against Wikipedia, one very useful class project I have begun to use to help students sort the chaff from the grain is not just using, but editing entries. As a form of crowdsourcing to document shared knowledge, Wikipedia offers ample examples of the best and worst of the knowledge production process in all of its human messiness. In both the entries and the extensive editing histories and talk pages, it offers samples of the extremely scholarly to the most amateurish in process and content. These are valuable live examples of humans attempting to establish facts.

Scholars need to be more actively engaged in this crowdsourcing knowledge experiment gone viral. Engaging our students in the process serves many purposes. Students see how knowledge is constructed as an ongoing communal refining process. They hone their abilities to assess whether information is misleading and how it might be made more accurate even as they are researching and absorbing course-related content. And with faculty guidance they help make this increasingly used source more useful to everyone.

Wikipedia, in its ideals, models good intellectual practices. This virtual community’s values and rules for engagement offer clear guidelines for what is considered well-documented information and what is not as well as a structure for supporting civil discourse even as people often intensely disagree. What better way to help students understand the messiness of the never-ending process of getting at better facts and some processes for engaging in it?

Wikiedu has made integrating such projects into almost any class a relatively easy endeavor. In fact, this last fall, I used their course timeline for the whole course rather than inserting the Wikiedu modules into my own separate syllabus. This way students could simply go to our Wikiedu course page for most everything on a weekly basis. Wikiedu offers faculty training and plug in Wikiedu modules that scaffold student preparation for editing Wikipedia. I learned to edit alongside my students. There is no topic area not important to have a scholarly presence there and Wikiedu offers many samples syllabi.

In my lower-division ethics course I had my students work in groups and choose course-related topics to edit. In the first iteration I definitely gave my students too much freedom of choice about topics. In the second iteration, while I contained the scope a bit more, I plan to focus the work more specifically yet the next time round so as not to overwhelm them with choices.

Each step of the way we discussed their understanding of the quality of the “facts” they were finding and practiced methods for assuring greater accuracy. Many started the class with fuzzy notions of the difference between opinion and fact, or what serves as reasonable evidence. Every one of them left with a clearer sense of how to assess the quality of the information they find.

Many of my students are shocked to not only be “allowed” to use Wikipedia, but to find out how easily they can participate in expanding and improving this global community knowledge base. Some of my students have continued to edit beyond the class assignment, thereby refining this experiment in exponential communal knowledge creation by adding their bits for greater accuracy.

Perhaps more importantly, they learn a bit about how all knowledge is both expanded and improved through communal efforts over time. No one of us has all the answers and we do better when we come together across the full range of perspectives to better refine what is now a growing global knowledge commons.

Mine is currently the only CSUCI course on Wikipedia and we are one of only four CSU campuses to participate. I hope this inspires more of our faculty to get on board.

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