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Wikipedia: Why You Should Care

September 10, 2011

If you are an educator, this includes all librarians, you have probably been thinking about Wikipedia for a while. Let’s just say you haven’t been thinking about it… you should be thinking about it because a study done in 2009 by Lim and Sook in the Journal of American Society for Information Science and Technology shows that at least one third of college students use Wikipedia for academic research. Hell, I’m a librarian and I use Wikipedia all of the time… which has driven me to write this post:

Wikipedia is awesome, and it sucks.

Wikipedia is awesome because it:

  • Is easily and freely accessible (unlike databases)
  • Often links to more information (sources, images, external links)
  • Is a living thing (and can change way faster than a print encyclopedia)

Wikipedia sucks because:

  • The articles can be poorly written, misleading, slanted, totally false…
  • It is (thus) forbidden in academia (or as a professional tool)
  • It only represents what people who know how to use it want (or want to) to represent

What should we be doing with Wikipedia if it is both sucky and awesome?

We should be using it to teach information literacy

because there are so many great examples of good Wikipedia entries with good references, and really bad ones with bad or no references

because it is relevant (since at least one third of students use it for academic research)

We should be using it to teach empowerment

because the student (or patron) interested in xyz can contribute to the topic. Hey, you aren’t being represented well, or at all? Represent yourself!

Because learning how you can represent yourself not only teaches good writing and research, but it allows for authentic representation. It is not only better for the individual, but it is also better for the research.

We should be editing it

  • because, like it or not, collaborative user-driven information sharing has been, and will be, the way we learn
  • because we need you!

I edit Wikipedia (very occasionally) under greypele. I’ve moderated a panel with a Wikipedia editor, and have contributed to the discussion in closed circles. None of my personal or professional friends contribute to Wikipedia, save for one English teacher who maintains a fake Wikipedia entry to teach his students that Wikipedia cannot be trusted (a teaching decision I disagree with), and another who inserts himself into the lineup of his favorite supergroup (yes, it is me that has taken you out of the lineup each time).

The best Wikipedia-related thing I’ve heard in a while was that it is being used in lesson plans to evaluate reliability, content, and writing style, and then to have students contribute to the entry. Woolly cow, talk about information literacy, relevancy, and empowerment!

If you are an educator, and you don’t know how to use and edit Wikipedia, please learn. Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About

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