Wikipedia in schools
As the world's most widely used on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia will inevitably find its way into classroom activities. It might be fair to say open-source and public encyclopedias will become at least a permanent if not a major part of the public and parochial educational landscape.
Several questions arise about the role of an open source encyclopedia in K-12 educational settings. Concepts of open-source design and of public domain resources can be unique ideas in educational settings.
Wikipedia offers an opportunity for educators to explore concepts of public trust that are likely to continue growing in prominence throughout the lives of today's record population of youth. Development of answers to the questions of students and educators can help encyclopedia editors and developers better understand the needs of encyclopedia users. Wikipedia is an opportunity for students to learn skills for effective community participation.
The following is a list of questions students or educators might ask about Wikipedia, with answers based on the status of Wikipedia, and on reasonable projections for the immediate future.
Q: Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable?
- A: Generally, yes, Wikipedia is accurate. Wikipedia is rapidly developing, so the reliability of the encyclopedia is improving all the time. Readers can rely on Wikipedia for a wider range of information, and for more detail as the encyclopedia grows. Because readers continually compare articles to what they already know, articles tend to become more accurate and detailed. Articles about many of the major sciences were developed from other public domain encyclopedias, providing a reliable basis upon which encyclopedia writers could develop more current information.
Q: What keeps somebody from contributing false information?
- A: Nothing. However, scores of encyclopedia editors monitor daily the list of contributions. There is seldom, if ever, a time when somebody reliable is not watching new entries. Experienced editors become familiar with the work of other editors and do not need to watch as closely the work of reliable editors. Contributions from new or unregistered users usually get closer scrutiny. False information is usually quickly noticed and removed or replaced with correct information. It is important to remember that false, misleading or incorrect information can occur in any medium. It is never a good idea to rely on only one source of information.
Q: What does Wiki mean?
- A: WikiWiki is a Hawaiian word for quick. Some educators ask if Wiki has anything to do with the Wiccan religion. It does not.
Q: Can students cite Wikipedia in assignments?
- A: It depends on what teachers accept. The best policy in any writing is to have more than one source. Wikipedia can be an excellent starting place for further research. Teachers might ask students what they did to validate the information they learned from Wikipedia. Working with a comprehensive search engine such as Google, readers can easily compare Wikipedia content with information from other encyclopedias or from other educational web sites.
Q: Is it a safe environment for young people?
- A: Wikipedia is as safe as most interactive on-line environments. Participation in Wikipedia is probably appropriate for youths who know basic on-line safety practices. Wikipedia is not a social organization, and provides few opportunities for casual social interaction. Because other editors routinely monitor Wikipedia, inappropriate activity is quickly noticed and stopped.
Q: If I put a drawing or picture on Wikipedia, can somebody steal it and use it?
- A: If a drawing is published to the public domain, anybody can use it, but the law prohibits anyone from stealing it. Once it is copyrighted to the public domain, nobody can obtain a private copyright. Some images contributed to Wikipedia are likely to become some of the most widely used images in the world because they are public domain. Contributing quality, accurate images to Wikipedia is one way for a young artist to have their work seen around the world.
Q: What is open-source media?
- A: Open source media is a kind of information produced by open groups of developers in which anybody who wants to can use the information. Open source production emerged among software engineers with the production of Linux, an open-source computer operating system. Wikimedia is a open source software that supports an open source encyclopedia.
- Open source production relies on qualified users to maintain a constantly improving collection, whether it is an open collection of computer code or of encyclopedic information. Open source collections typically maintain back-up resources, so if a developer accidentally damages the code or the content, it can easily be reverted to an earlier, stable version. The same backup system provides protection against malicious damage to an open-source project.
Q: Why do people contribute to the public domain?
- A: Few surveys have developed reliable answers to why people contribute to public domain works like Wikipedia. Some sort of public interest or community spirit is often part of the motive. Public domain projects offer an opportunity to contribute to something that has lasting value and that will continue to grow. Public domain publishing allows writers and software developers to apply their skills outside of a strictly business environment. Casual writers and editors sometimes participate as a hobby or as a learning experience.
Q: Why haven't I heard of this before?
- A: Chances are better than ever you have heard of it before. Wikipedia's rapid growth recently has been reported in several national news programs. Wikipedia was established in January, 2001, and is now making a place for itself in the world's collection of knowledge. As the encyclopedia grows, more people learn about it everyday, much in the same way Internet use surged in the late 1990s.
- Wikipedia does not advertise as many new services do, so public knowledge of Wikipedia is mostly a result of word-of-mouth, of readers discovering the service while browsing on-line or of people learning about the encyclopedia from news reports.
Q: Beyond information from the encyclopedia, what can students learn from Wikipedia?
- A: Most youths will likely at some point become involved in interactive on-line activities. For educators, youths' involvement with Wikipedia provides an opportunity for educators to survey youths' understanding of on-line safety, and to teach appropriate practices. Educators can use Wikipedia as a way of teaching students to develop hierarchies of credibility that are essential for navigating and conducting research on the Internet.
- Wikipedia provides an opportunity for teachers to discuss the concept of the public domain. Wikipedia offers a unique learning environment for situations where youths have low community attachment with a tendency to disrespect public property. Wikipedia is an opportunity to discuss an open community that relies primarily on mutual respect and cooperation, but which is not attached to idealized authorities that youths might tend to oppose.
- Editing in Wikipedia is an opportunity to learn to participate in collective editorial processes. Wikipedia presents a ready opportunity for youths to research, compile and publish articles for peer review. For youths who contribute images, selection and production of an image provides opportunities to learn what a market wants from an artist. Youths who master skills for accurate writing and drawing about encyclopedic subjects are better equipped to develop their own style in more creative genres.
Q. Can a school group set up its own Wiki?
- A: Yes. MediaWiki is an open source software, which means anyone who knows how to use it and who has access to a server computer may set up their own Wiki project.
- Access to a Wiki database can be password protected, to allow groups to develop an open document within their membership. Passwords can allow a Wiki to be developed by a school club, a teachers group, a regional group of schools or any group within an educational community. MediaWiki databases might be used for school histories, to develop yearbook material or as class projects. A group can operate a Wiki project on-line or within a closed Local Area Network.