A Defense of Wikipedia - Crowdsoucring the World's Knowledge

Wikipedia is one of the largest Crowdsourced projects on the planet. With 3 million plus articles in English and millions more in other languages, it is the work of many people working tirelessly to share information and knowledge. It is also one of the most visible crowdsourced projects out there as it is usually the top result in your searches.

Wikipedia has received criticism since its inception almost ten year ago. With the idea that anyone could write and edit articles, the trustworthiness (truthiness as Stephen Colbert would say) was called into question. Many teachers will not accept research sourced from Wikipedia because of their concern that it would be incorrect. I hope this articles encourages the wider adoption of the Wiki and convinces people of its usefulness while still being realistic about its shortcomings.

In Defense of Collaborative Editing
The amount of articles that are added every year to Wikipedia are astounding. To have a small team of encyclopedia writers start from scratch would be an impossible task, yet hundreds of thousands of articles are added each year to Wikipedia. How is this possible?

According to the Internet World Stats page almost 2 billion people are online and while only a fraction of those are writing and editing for Wikipedia it divides the labor enough to make it possible for anyone to contribute.

Wikipedia has received criticism from media sources, comedians, teachers, and almost everyone else because there is the perception that anyone can just log in and within 10 seconds make themselves the President of the USA or make 2+2=5.

The best way to convince you otherwise is to encourage you to go online and propose a new article or edit an existing one.

Are you back? Are your hopes of being cited as the inventor of the light bulb or married to a supermodel dashed? If like me, you have submitted an article or changes for review, you will soon either have your change rejected or be told to modify it to meet the Wiki's high standards for submission. There are people in the community who contribute primarily by reviewing changes submitted for approval and they do an excellent job of catching errors.

Reliability of Wikipedia Articles
While there have been scandals and pranks, they are eventually corrected. In fact, when Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica were compared side by side, the number of errors found in each were similar. In fact there are some errors n the EB that have been corrected by Wikipedia.

Rest assured, if you are going to Wikipedia to learn or research a topic that is pretty much set in stone you have nothing to worry about. If you are trying to learn a skill or concept then you should be good to go. However, if you are looking at something related to Pop Culture you are much more likely to stumble upon a point of contention. If there are errors it may be because there is dispute about certain historical events but even the controversy is often discussed in the article.

Out of concern that Wikipedia's articles were not trustworthy for student consumption, alternative movements like CK-12 textbooks and Free High School Science Texts emerged. These are peer reviewed textbooks free for anyone to teach and/or learn from. Additionally, CK-12 has the unique feature of being able to customize your textbooks for your class so some topics are there while others are not.

Diversity always drives evolution and Wikipedia and the learning community as a whole can only benefit from alternative sources of learning. I hope more teachers will compare their trusted textbook or resource with Wikipedia to see how accurate and high quality of a resource it is.

Freedom of Information
No one group or person should control information. This was the premise behind a free press because  history shows that dictators and rulers alike have known that to control information is to control the culture and society. In the incredible work by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire We Make The Road by Walking, Freire remarks that in Brazil, the revolutionaries would come but the oppressive education and bias textbooks/lessons would remain.

We cannot let movements like Wikipedia die out. They are our defense against tyranny and as Thomas Jefferson remarked, "freedom of the press is not meant to protect the right to publish, it is to protect the right of the citizen to know."

Appropriately Using Wikipedia in the Classroom
I know I have referenced Sugata Mitra's Ted talk before, but the results are just too powerful to ignore. Students will learn if they are given the tools and time to do so. Rather than directly instruct the students all the time (or ever), why not teach them how to use the information on the web and how to discern what is useful and reliable. Many teachers use the Internet to research for lessons, why not shift that responsibility of learning to the students?

Wikipedia is a resource, an incredibly valuable resource with flaws. Yet, it is the perfect place for students to get their feet wet. When they leave the classroom walls in a few years (or even that evening) they are going to plug back into the Web to learn and they will most likely click on Wikipedia. Knowing how to navigate the web wisely is one of the best skills we can pass on to our students.

Closing Thoughts
  1.  Support the movement. The project is always in need of contributions both financial and of time.
    • Wikipedia is Free to everyone (i.e. Free as in Speech and as in Pizza) which embodies the World Wide Web's founding principles of connecting people and sharing data and information.
  2. Wikipedia is useful as a jumping off point. Sometimes the articles are confusing or too technical but the link references at the bottom or something mentioned in the body of the article often are extremely useful to guide one in the next steps for research.
  3. The controversy is important as people need to be critical of their media. I am extremely grateful to sites like Snopes, that encourage critical thinking and independently scour the web for errors and myths. Don't believe everything that you read or only read one source no matter where it is coming from.
Favorite experiences with Wikipedia? Disagree? Leave a comment!