Teaching critically with Wikipedia
An important element of teaching critical thinking to students is distinguishing reliable sources of information from less reliable ones. In educational settings at all levels, from K-12 to higher education, a common bugaboo is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is editable by nearly everyone. Claims are often made by teachers that Wikipedia is not reliable, and therefore students shouldn’t use it as a source of information. However, the very same educators use Wikipedia for preparation and research at a higher rate than the rest of the adult population of internet users. Is Wikipedia a reliable source of information? As early as 2005, the journal Nature compared the online encyclopedia to the traditional bastion of knowledge aggregation, Encyclopedia Britannica. Nature found that in the realm of science content, Wikipedia was Britannica’s equal regarding the accuracy of information. Despite some high profile fights over Wikipedia’s editing policies, and even well-publicized hoaxes, Wikipedia remains today a largely accurate source of information, across many realms of knowledge.
Like any good encyclopedia, Wikipedia is merely a presentation of the consensus of experts about different topics. No student should cite Wikipedia specifically as their primary source of information, but using it as a reference tool to understand the broad outlines of a topic is reasonable. Isn’t this what librarians have always said about print encyclopedias anyway? I think teachers who tell their students to avoid Wikipedia are doing them a disservice. Banishing the use the Wikipedia robs students of a teachable moment about how to think critically about information, and about how to evaluate sources. Given Wikipedia’s popularity (it’s ranked as the #6 website globally), and its high position in nearly any web search, I think these teachers are deluding themselves. Students are going to use it anyway.
To teach critically with Wikipedia, you have to be knowledgeable about some of its fundamental aspects. Just as with a print article, or a print encyclopedia, where you can look at an index, a reference list, or find the author of a particular entry, Wikipedia offers some functions that allow teachers, students, or any reader the ability to carefully examine its content.
At the very least, every Wikipedia reader should be aware of the “talk” and “history” tabs. If you want to know who has edited a Wikipedia article, you can click “View history”, or just “history” if you are logged in. This shows you a chronological list of each edit that has been made to a page. It shows you who made an edit, and if they wrote a rationale for the edit, that is also shown. If I happen on an article and become curious about how well it has been maintained, I generally start at the history tab. Once there, I click the “contributors” link. This brings up a list of the article’s editors, both registered and non-registered, in descending order of number of edits. This is useful because if a page has been well-maintained, or is at least curated, you’ll be able to tell right away.
The best pages are maintained by one or more editors, and the “contributors” list reveals who is actively editing a page. This can also help if you are trying to determine if a page on a controversial topic is being actively edited by someone with a clear bias. This doesn’t happen nearly as often as many think, mainly because it’s so easy to spot. If a “contributors” list reveals that an article has been edited only by a few people, and maybe only once by each, then you know the article is poorly maintained.
A Wikipedia article’s “talk” page is where discussion occurs. All discussions are required to be on-topic, and related to the maintenance of the article. I have found Wikipedia editors good at maintaining civility in these discussions. The talk page is where editors discuss any proposed major changes to an article. While there’s nothing to stop any one person from drastically changing the content of an article without consulting others, it’s considered polite in the Wikipedia community to begin a talk page discussion proposing a major change first. Uncontroversial changes, or minor edits (spelling, grammar), can be made without a talk discussion. When I want to know about the stability of an article, I look at the talk page. If it’s active with discussions about pending changes to content, then I might be less inclined to accept an article’s claims right away.
Major changes, or substantial content additions to an article, must be accompanied by a citation to an independent and reliable source. WIthout this step, even correct information that has been added in good faith may be reverted by another editor. Wikipedia’s dedication to using reliable sources to back up articles makes it a welcome haven for skeptics, I think. Wikipedia editors exhibit much of what we consider to be skeptical behavior.
I recommend that teachers and students become registered users, because it allows them to make edits on all articles. Some articles about controversial topics, or topics that tend to attract vandals, are protected so that only registered users can edit them. For example, the article on evolution is protected in this manner. Also, registered users can see right away an article’s quality rating, without having to look at the talk page. Articles are rated by editors on their quality, and generally an independent editor will do the rating for a particular topic. The best articles on Wikipedia have gone through a rigorous peer review process that checks the sources, establishes that the article is comprensive, copyedits the article, and checks the article against many high standards criteria. These are “featured articles”. Again, the article on evolution is an example. Featured articles can be trusted as authoritative, un-biased, and informative. These are the articles showcased on the front page of Wikipedia each day.
A step down from a featured article is a Good Article. These are articles that are well-written and stable, but are not yet comprehensive enough for featured status. These articles are nominated for promotion, and involve a single peer-reviewer, who checks against a less-rigorous set of standards. I’ve done dozens of these reviews myself. A “good article” is probably a reasonable source of information on a topic, but should be met with more skepticism than a featured article. Remember, featured articles are promoted after an intense peer review by many editors. In contrast, an article can be promoted to “good article” status by a single editor, who may be biased on the topic. Pop culture topics (pop music, tv, movies) are rife with such editor bias.
Articles with lower quality ratings, such as B, C, start, or stub, should be approached with a higher degree of caution. It could be that the information in these articles is of high quality, and that the quality rating just doesn’t reflect this. In that situation, a teacher or student should go through the process I mentioned above of looking at the history and talk pages.
Teachers who assign research papers and writing projects can encourage students to go beyond just being a critical consumer of the information on Wikipedia. Assignments can be made in which students actively edit articles, checking facts and content, or bolstering content with reliable sourcing. A written research paper for a class is read by perhaps two people: the student and the teacher. A Wikipedia article has the potential to reach a vast audience. For this very reason, I’m not the first skeptic to encourage the editing of Wikipedia articles. Tim Farley is an active Wikipedia editor, and has long maintained that the website’s reach makes it a place that skeptics can make a difference. He even has a blog series on the topic. Daniel Loxton has also written about editing Wikipedia as a way to encourage grassroots skepticism. The editing process on Wikipedia is a natural arena for practicing skeptical thinking and behavior. Because of its open nature – anybody can review the edits of any user – this makes it easer for teachers to track student work, which can fit in to grading rubrics without difficulty.
Everybody uses Wikipedia. I feel comfortable making that assertion. Teachers should educate themselves on its functions and use. Better yet, students should be exposed to the proper use of the encyclopedia as a source of information. Doing so teaches critical thinking and skeptical behavior.