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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Using Wikipedia wisely

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 14, 2009

Wikipedia is in constant use around the world today, and nearly all of us use it as a frontline source of information now.  Somewhere, I have read that while there can be inaccuracies, research showed that there were actually fewer errors in Wikipedia than in the Britannica, especially for more recent information.  Well, maybe that depends on the entry.  Wikipedia’s team of scrutineers monitor contentious topics (e.g. Israel/Palestine) and sometimes ‘lock’ them so that changes have to pass scrutiny; sometimes there is just a warning to be wary, as there was when I used the entry on Muhammed Ali  as a source for one of my students who had chosen him as a subject for our current Biography unit of work.   Overall, I find it remarkably helpful, especially when seeking information about countries that don’t feature so much in US/UK encyclopaedias – not least Australia!  Some of the entries are excellent, and have been written with clarity and expertise, as I found when I wanted to know more about Modernism, (see my post about it at ANZLitLovers). 

But there can be pitfalls, and I am indebted to my good friend Sue Terry, from Whispering Gums, for the following advice about using Wikipedia wisely.  All students should be made aware of these tips for sorting out the good from the bad:

  • check the footnotes/references: good Wikipedia articles cite their sources, not just as references at the end of the article, but in-line at the point statements are made.
  • make sure the sources are valid: look at the domain names (such as dot gov and dot edu) and the authority of the person or organisation behind that source. Blogs, for example, are great to read but they are not necessarily a reliable source for an encyclopedia article.
  • look for multiple sources: these can provide a double-check on statements made, particularly the more controversial ones
  • check that the sources themselves don’t cite each other: circular referencing can be common in the on-line information world.
  • look under the “Discussion” tab: this is where articles are assessed (though these are not always up to date) and where discussion about the article occurs – contentious issues, exclusion versus inclusion of information, definition of terms, etc, can be discussed here.
  • look under the “History” tab: while many Wikipedia editors are anonymous or semi-anonymous, you can get a sense of who has been involved and the level of their activity and involvement.
  • note any tags on the articles: editors tag articles that have problems, such as poor or no citation of sources, incomplete or minimal content, and so on. Some of this may be obvious but sometimes these tags can clue you in to how useful the article may be, where its weaknesses are.


4 Responses to “Using Wikipedia wisely”

  1. whisperinggums said

    In the speech given by Jimmy Wales cited in my Whispering Gums post, he talks about the study done on accuracy of Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia Britannica. The study, as I recollect, was done by Nature magazine and reported in December 2005. It compared a number of science articles. Encyclopedia Britannica was slightly ahead in accuracy BUT only slightly. So, if you use some basic techniques to check the authority/validity of Wikipedia articles you can be pretty comfortable that you are getting decent reliability.

    You make a good point re Wikipedia’s coverage of non-UK/US subjects. Wikipedia can also be good for definition of terms AND for providing terms that you can use to do further search engine searches.

  2. S Stevens said

    Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

    Over the next year or so we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

  3. Lisa Hill said

    97% of the online encyclopaedia market – that is astonishing! I know that it’s my first port of call, not just because it’s free but also because it’s easy: I can set my browser to search it from the menu bar and bypass all the advertising sites!
    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Britannica. My father had an ancient set which I used to enjoy browsing as a child – but I remember being quite horrified to learn that their salesmen were persuading people who really couldn’t afford it to buy sets on hire purchase with very high interest rates. That’s a long time ago now, and hopefully they don’t do it any more.

  4. whisperinggums said

    I agree with you regarding the selling style of Britannica. My parents bought a second hand set at one stage – we were so proud to have it! But, while it was useful as a quick reference, it wasn’t particularly appealing to read. I always preferred the more colourful World Book Encyclopedia – until of course Encarta came out on CD-Rom. How great that was – a whole new world it seemed. But now there’s Wikipedia and, one can assume, it can only get better. Where to next?

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