My husband and I are in the parenting stage we call “housefuls of teenagers”. In the 21st Century, high school students, much like college students, seem to form their own learning communities to study various subjects. I love it when they gather at our home because it gives me a chance to find out what’s happening. Recently a group visited our home and gathered around the computer in the game room. When I walked in, they had Wikipedia up on the screen. I casually asked what they were doing, and they said they were researching something. I noted that they were using Wikipedia and asked how their teachers felt about that. My query was answered with, “Mom! We’re just using it to get started!” Then they showed me that when you scroll down to the bottom of most articles, there is a list of resources from which the information was gleaned. This list was the basis of their research. No teacher had showed them this; some student just figured it out, showed someone else, and now they are all infected with the “Wikipedia-as-research” virus.
IMHO what these students need, and what is sorely missing from most school curricula, are media literacy and research skills—for the 21st Century. With the loss of licensed media specialists in most of our schools during the funding decline of the last two decades, and greater demands on standards and testing, media literacy is often left by the wayside. The advent of the Internet has made information more readily available than ever before in history—but misinformation is more readily available as well. Simply banning students from CITING Wikipedia obviously does not prevent them from USING it.
Perhaps a better strategy would be to meet this problem head-on: Teach students how to use Wikipedia appropriately, how to evaluate the information they find there, and--gasp!--maybe even contribute to the common base of knowledge found there. Omigosh, we have just touched on most of the recently-updated NETS standards for students (9-12):
- Identify capabilities and limitations of contemporary and emerging technology resources and assess the potential of these systems and services to address personal, lifelong learning, and workplace needs.
- Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services.
- Analyze advantages and disadvantages of widespread use and reliance on technology in the workplace and in society as a whole.
- Demonstrate and advocate for legal and ethical behaviors among peers, family, and community regarding the use of technology and information.
- Use technology tools and resources for managing and communicating personal/professional information (e.g., finances, schedules, addresses, purchases, correspondence).
- Evaluate technology-based options, including distance and distributed education, for lifelong learning.
- Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publications, communications, and productivity.
- Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making in content learning.
- Investigate and apply expert systems, intelligent agents, and simulations in real-world situations.
- Collaborate with peers, experts, and others to contribute to a content-related knowledge base by using technology to compile, synthesize, produce, and disseminate information, models, and other creative works.
As an educator, you might be wondering, “But how am I going to do this? I don’t know much about Wikipedia myself; how ever will I figure out how to teach students about it?”
As it happens, I came across an excellent article the other day by educational technologist Andy Carvin. Andy writes a blog called Learning.now that is connected to the PBS Teachers site, and has blogged about both Wikipedia and media literacy several times. The article I came across is not his most recent on this topic, but what I found helpful is that there are many suggestions within the article on how to use Wikipedia as a vehicle for teaching research and media literacy skills.
Every course that asks students to do any type of research needs to explicitly teach the skills that students need, and not expect, as educators sometimes do, that “their previous teacher should have taught them those skills.” Utilizing the strategies from the article covers a plethora of content standards as well as the NETS standards.
It is imperative that our youth learn to research appropriately, to think critically, to question validity, to evaluate accuracy, and to use responsibly. Using Wikipedia as a vehicle to teach these skills provides us with a free resource, as well as an opportunity to do what educators do best: Make lemons into lemonade.