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Teaching my students to use Wikipedia

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Do a quick Google or Yahoo search of any historical figure, event, or geographical location.

The top search results for topics such as Ronald Reagan, the Olympics and Machu Picchu will include a link to a Wikipedia entry. Those results provide a door to a seemingly endless stream of information and links.

“I’ve always liked the Wikipedia rabbit-hole concept,” said Lamar Salter, a freelance journalist. “A simple search on a TV character or popular song can somehow lead you through pages and pages of content, and before you know it you’re looking up background information about the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.”

Wikipedia, the leading online encyclopedia, is updated by a network of millions of contributors.

A “wiki” is nothing more than a website that allows users to collaboratively create, edit and structure content. It’s the best example of information crowdsourcing. Experts and others with general interest in certain topics come together to update entries and draft new ones.

Wikipedia isn’t the only “wiki” out there, although it’s clearly the most popular. Check out WikiTravel, WikiHow, or WikiBooks for good examples.

In the college classroom, Wikipedia is panned as a hack source of information. College professors return papers with big red lines through any reference to Wikipedia entries.

I used to struggle with allowing my students to use Wikipedia for research. Do I deny requests to use Wikipedia when doing research, or do I leave open the door to 4.8 million encyclopedia entries?

Truth is, I allow my students to use Wikipedia, but there’s a catch. I don’t let students cite Wikipedia, and I still red-pen references to Wikipedia. But about five years ago, I started encouraging my students to use Wikipedia to kick-start research projects.

Here’s why:

1. They’re using it anyway. Students might not be citing Wikipedia entries, but that won’t stop them from reading and paraphrasing entries. We know students use it as a tool for learning more about subjects. Better that I teach them how to critically analyze Wikipedia as an information source than repeating the “Wikipedia is evil” mantra.

I teach my students “C-R-A-P detection” skills, developed by social media critic Howard Rheingold. These skills include asking questions about currency (is the information up-to-date), reliability (are references and sources included), authority (who are the creators and are they reputable), and purpose (is the information biased).

2. Most of the information on Wikipedia is accurate. The entries are usually more current than other sources. Wikipedia makes a concentrated effort on checking the accuracy of entries and credibility of contributors. “I’ve grown to respect [Wikipedia’s] focused efforts on user accountability and accuracy, even going as far as banning ISPs that add misleading or dubious content,” Salter added.

3. Wikipedia entries use references and external links. A student was in my office and mentioned a theory I didn’t recognize. Without skipping a beat, I found the Wikipedia entry, read the first two sentences, and scrolled to the bottom to find links to other entries,and links and references to original studies. With just a few clicks, my student found a dozen credible and current sources.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at