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Wikipedia May Not Be Good For All Students

In the unique little web community in which I spend a lot of my time (too much?), we’ve heard a lot of talk about the possibility of students contributing to Wikipedia as one way to make their research more authentic.

But what happens when a teacher actually tries that? It turns out the results are not as idealistic as some of us might have hoped.

A professor at the University of Washington-Bothell required her students to create articles for Wikipedia instead of writing a traditional term paper “which typically has an audience of one (the professor) before ending its career in a recycling bin”.

To that end, she assigned two of her classes the task of generating Wikipedia entries focused on globalization and sustainable development. 34 students in one class and 14 student groups in a second participated; all but one student found it a valuable experience, and many reported that they felt more personally invested in the work. For her part, Groom felt that the quality of the work was superior to the typical in-class assignment.

The Wikipedia community, however, was not as impressed. One article didn’t survive for 24 hours following its introduction, and four additional ones were ultimately deleted following extensive discussion, their contents merged into existing entries. Groom also noted that some of the comments in the ensuing discussions “were delivered rudely.”

Editors and critics delivering their commentary rudely? Now that’s authentic. :-)

There were also some issues with students learning the mark up language used by the site to format the material, as well as adapting to the language and style required for the online encyclopedia.

Ok, so Wikipedia may not the best format for students to use for publishing their work.

However, this one example doesn’t lessen the need for kids to be able to offer their research, ideas and thoughts for review and critique by a audience than that sitting in their classroom.

wikipedia, education, student, publishing


  1. Dave

    As a frequent Wikipedia contributor, I found this article fascinating, thanks for pointing it out!

    “Wikipedia may not the best format for students to use for publishing their work.”

    This is definitely true, since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a self-publishing tool. The PowerPoint presentation from Educause seems to say that the Wikipedia assignments were a success.

    To me, this is a great assignment for older students. Students get an idea of what real-world work is like, where, upon starting a new job, you must take time to learn the systems that are already in place. Students get to publish and work with random collaborators of varying temperaments (but mostly nice folks).

    I hope things like this catch on…I’ve always felt that we spend too much time giving students assignments just to test their skills when there are comparable assignments that would also contribute to the collection of human knowledge. Interview projects, for example, can record perspectives on life in communities that normally would have been forgotten ten or twenty years down the road. Imagine if every college undergrad and high school student in the US made a handful of positive, informed edits to Wikipedia…I’m excited to imagine that one day collaborations on a much larger scale than today’s Wikipedia will provide more useful tools for everyone.

  2. Brian Mull

    Again, I think this all depends on the assignment, the way it is setup, and how the tool is used.

    A teacher that I worked with once had a group of third grade students who were researching a local colonial home. The research was done in a fairly traditional way-looking at books, visiting the site and speaking to experts.

    When the research was done, the students worked together to write about this home, and the teacher was hoping to publish what they learned to Wikipedia (no article on this home existed there).

    Now, knowing that the writings of third graders would be cut out of Wikipedia, the teacher took what they wrote and adapted it to “adult speak.” She explained to the kids that this was going to go into an encyclopedia that the whole world could read and that they would be teaching a lot of people about what they had learned. She also explained why she adapted their work. They were fine with it all.

    Imagine how excited they were to see there work published and that others were building on their content.

    It was great experiment that was successful because of understanding of how the tool works, its benefits and its limitations.

    Read more about the Pitot House here.


  3. Carolyn Foote

    I actually think this was a great real world exercise. Real world writers have their work edited, mashed up, and rejected, so it definitely provided an authentic experience.

    And kudos to the teacher for trying to make for a real world experience. My guess is a few of those students continue to try to get an article “accepted” by wikipedians!

  4. ms. frizzle

    Seems like what’s needed is a wikipedia type thing for kids… already there’s “Simple English” as a language in Wikipedia… perhaps that’s a better place for kids to contribute? Most of those entries lack any useful detail, although their English is Simple all right… kids could provide the detail while the language level would be more appropriate.

  5. the Black Adder

    So…these were university-colleges students who were unable to master the Wikipedia mark up language and write a coherent article?

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