Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-04-16/A Wikipedia education

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Wikipedia continues to get mixed reactions in education

By Michael Snow, 16 April, 2007

Given its visibility in academic circles, Wikipedia remains a focus of both praise and criticism from educators, with some high-profile debate on the subject in the past week.

The latest flurry of discussion started in the UK, where Education Secretary Alan Johnson mentioned the project during a speech while attending the Belfast conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Johnson said, "Wikipedia enables anybody to access information which was once the preserve of those who could afford the subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica and were prepared to navigate its maze of indexes and content pages." The comment was in the context of discussing the benefits of the internet for education (and later in the speech, its downsides as well).

This endorsement drew some skeptical responses, with a NASUWT officer saying that the union itself has been the subject of "scurrilous claims" on Wikipedia. The article about the union is currently flagged as being of disputed neutrality. Also surfacing in media coverage of Johnson's comments was Larry Sanger, who called Wikipedia "broken beyond repair", although he later clarified that this comment referred specifically to the project's governance. (Even before this, the topic of governance was the subject of some thoughts posted by Wikimedia Foundation chair Florence Devouard that launched a discussion on the foundation's mailing list.)

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders recommended Wikipedia as a "valuable resource" where children can learn "how to be critical and sceptical of what they read just like they would be with any other medium, be it newspapers or even school text books".

The most widely publicized academic response to Wikipedia has been the Middlebury College history department's resolution, passed in January, that prohibited students from citing Wikipedia as a source. This type of approach has sometimes been questioned as too draconian, or simply elicited puzzlement at the notion that college students would think of citing any encyclopedia in their papers at all. Covering the story, the New York Times also pointed out how some professors are using Wikipedia in their classrooms, sometimes incorporating Wikipedia editing into assignments.

How to approach Wikipedia has also been an issue for educators below the college level, naturally. Chris Anderson of Wired recently blogged about his children getting instruction using Wikipedia already in elementary school. Anderson related that they were specifically being taught to use Wikipedia in combination with other resources, as facts in their papers were expected to have support from two independent sources.

On the other side, Slashdot published a report submitted by one of its readers last week, indicating that a school board had decided to block Wikipedia from the district's computers entirely. Apparently even teachers and administrators would be unable to use the site. As Andrew Lih pointed out, however, the report warrants skepticism considering that the report included no links to support its claim and no identifying information from which the story could be verified.

Meanwhile, for its part Wikipedia has to develop its approach toward those coming to the project from the world of academia. Thus last week Wikipedia editors launched a project to assist with the use of Wikipedia in an academic setting — it will be known as WikiProject Classroom coordination. This effort will try to provide guidance and assistance for the various school and university projects that involve Wikipedia.

Also this week: Britannica FA

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