Several weeks ago I wrote Why Wikipedia: The Questions that Parents Keep Asking, published over at the Platform for Good blog. I wrote about the challenges that adults face when children use the giant online encyclopedia, the activities that are occurring to make Wikipediabetter, and the concerns that adults have with sourcing. Now I share a situation that illustrates Wikipedia at its best — an example that the parents of digital kids may want to point out to their children.
The New York Time recently published Wikipedia Emerges as Trusted Internet Source for Ebola Information, an October 26, 2014 article which describes the steps that medical professional are taking to edit and vet Ebola information on Wikipedia. Written by Noam Cohen, the Times’s piece says that Wikipedia’s Ebola article had more than 17 millions views last month and profiles some of the medical professionals who are writing and editing the information about this terrible epidemic.
Wikipedia is cool, Wikipedia is filled with information, and Wikipedia is great fun to visit.
That said, reminding children about the authority of references and the expertise of authors — whenever children begin research — is an important part of teaching and parenting. A critical 21st Century and life skill is understanding how to go about judging the quality of references and especially learning how to figure out when information is not up to snuff.
If students start out a project by looking up a topic on Wikipedia, and many of them do, they should hear — over and over at every age — about the importance of seeking out and reading other resources to confirm the facts. Adults, too, need to make this a habit.
A new book, Wikipedia: 3.5 Million Articles and Counting, offers parents and educators a great opportunity to read together and learn more — lots more — about Wikipedia. Author Heather Hasan writes in detail about the history and philosophy of this mammoth open-source encyclopedia, explaining how Wikipedia works and describing how the editors keep track of new entries, edits, and re-edits.
Hasan points out the ways that Wikipedia writers occasionally argue over topics, and she notes that editors often decide to lock down a subject or entry. Other short sections of the book share Wikipedia facts and myths, a glossary, and several pages of bibliographic references.
If you read this book with children in your family or students in your class, be sure to have continuing conversations, both while reading the book and afterwards, about the importance of expertise and authority, pointing out that another reason to confirm the facts — aside from worrying about misinformation — is to learn whether even the experts disagree.
An excellent Wikipedia documentary, Truth in Numbers, is available at Amazonand includes interviews with many of the people who have helped the Internet to develop and grow — the movers and shakers of the World Wide Web.
A wikiis an online document, viewed in a web browser, that allows a user or users to add and accumulate information on a topic. Usually, but not always, people work collaboratively on a wiki, so it’s a terrific learning tool.
Anyone can set up a wiki and invite others to contribute. All of the pages are visible and can be edited in the browser. What is unusual about a wiki, compared to many other forms of writing, is the ability of all users to edit and change the work of fellow collaborators, definitely a “we’re all working together project” that teaches group members to cooperate with one another and respect their work. A wiki document can include text, links, pictures, and video.
If you wonder about the still-new world of social media, and are continually amazed when a few comments on a social media site affect prompt change (whether it’s a political movement, corporate policy, or an unsatisfied customer quieted down) this New York Times article, Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media, provides helpful background. The article, by Stuart Elliott, describes the evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the digital public relations world.
“Why use Wikipedia?” adults often ask. What they are really asking is, “Should my kids use Wikipedia, and is it a real reference?” For adults who grew up in the age of multiple volumes of well-documented references, it’s hard to wrap our minds around Wikipedia — and even harder to use it.
Digital natives, however, consult Wikipedia all the time, and the number of users and the content is increasing. According to a 2006 review in School Library Journal, “The popular online encyclopedia, whose entries are written and edited by any user, may inspire trepidation, even fear, yet the behemoth is impossible to ignore.” So just who is writing for Wikipedia? A March 2010 MSNBC article Who Writes Wikipedia, describes a research project that aimed to develop profiles of writers who contribute content.