2.3 million ton elephant in the room

The 2.3 million ton elephant in the room is that everyone uses Wikipedia, but we’re reluctant to admit it it because its reputation lacks credibility. In my previous post, I wrote that we need to keep in perspective that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and if we use it as such, we’ll find it to be very useful.

I also wrote that Wikipedia’s untrustworthiness just might be a bit overblown. Consider the following scenario.

My husband and I are watching the credits roll on that breathtakingly wonderful HBO series, John Adams , when my husband asks: “How many terms did John Adams serve as President?”

“Hmmmm . . .” I ponder, though I really haven’t a clue.

“Google it,” my husband suggests.

I’m already reaching for my laptop, but my url destination will be Wikipedia instead of Google, as this is exactly the type of information that an encyclopedia can answer better and quicker than a search engine. Within seconds I announce that he only served one term, 1797-1801. My academic training teaches me that I should always check more than one source, but I’m satisfied that this answer is likely to be correct. Someone must have checked this date’s accuracy before now. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to be thorough.

When I click on the View Source tab at the top of the page, I’m informed that the article on John Adams is semi-protected, meaning that it can only be edited by registered users who have proved their mettle, as well as lack of intent to do harm. I am invited to click on a link that will explain the reasoning behind semi-protection. I’m also given a forum to protest the article’s semi-protected state, if I should wish to do so.

To some, protecting articles on Wikipedia from automatic editing smacks of censorship. So be it: civilization only rises when anarchy is contained. What I’m left with is a growing sense that the material I’ve read about John Adams is indeed accurate. And I learn that although the article is protected, some aspects are contested with vigor behind the Discussion tab, providing a lively and ongoing dialog about the facts.

If you were from Quincy you might have learned that Braintree was founded in 1640, Quincy was later incorporated into it, but finally made city in 1888. Look it up. He wasn’t from Braintree, he was from Quincy. I would know, I live there.

Protest-Well, David McCullough certainly seems convinced that Adams was from Braintree. He persists in calling him John Adams of Braintree and goes so far to describe him as having been born in Braintree, not Quincy. -Anonymous

Dear Quincy Resident, Why don’t you come to Braintree and view the birth records of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and John Hancock. There was no such place as Quincy. The north precinct of Braintree did not separate from Braintree and become it’s own town (Quincy) until nearly the 19th century. When Abigail Adams climbed Penn’s Hill with her young son John Quincy to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill,it was Braintree. Why don’t you get your facts straight.’

As our Founding Fathers discovered, Democracy can get a bit testy at times, but it’s a great system.

dissing Wikipedia

Just when we thought it was safe to dip back into Wikipedia waters without fear of academic retaliation, I spied this Computerworld column being thrown about the web. Professor Lichtenstein of Deakin University in Australia fears that

People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading,” she said. “Parents and teachers think it is [okay], but it is a light-weight model of knowledge and people don’t know about the underlying model of how it operates.

Wikipedia as a source is a light-weight model of knowledge: guilty as charged. Professor Lichtenstein asks this burning question:

Yet as I say to my students, ‘if you had to have brain surgery would you prefer someone who has been through medical school, trained and researched in the field or the student next to you who has read Wikipedia?

No-brainer there: only the medically-trained, field researched expert may clip off pieces of my brain. But, here’s my question: what medical student is going to use Wikipedia as a source for his or her training?

And, on a final point I am again in complete agreement with the professor:

As a result, Lichtenstein’s students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their coursework.

Well, no kidding. I’m from generations before generation X, Y, Z, yet I was not allowed to cite from encyclopedias once I got out of grade school.

Let’s put this in perspective. Wikipedia is not the end-all be-all of accurate information; it’s an encyclopedia. It’s a very special encyclopedia in that it can theoretically be added to and edited by anyone. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

First, I’d like to address accuracy. Back in 2005 when Wikipedia was being recognized as a phenomenon as well as a threat to paper-bound encyclopedias, Nature did a study to test Wikipedia’s accuracy against Encylopedia Britannica’s. You probably recall that Britannica was found to have a slight edge over Wikipedia–roughly, 3 errors per article vs. 4 Wikipedia errors–but you might not be aware of how Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, responded to that study.

He . . . . acknowledged that the error rate for each encyclopedia was not insignificant, and added that he thinks such numbers demonstrate that broad review of encyclopedia articles is needed.

Wikis are all about accessible change for improvement’s sake, and Jimmy learned the very lesson he popularized. Today’s wiki is not your big sister’s wiki; it’s improved. Stay tuned for an example of the fascinating and ongoing dialogue that wikis are in general, and Wikipedia has become in particular.

wikis unwrapped

I’ve mentioned wikis as a possible platform for your classroom. I’ve used wikis before, particularly PBwiki, but not in the way they are intended. Wikis are meant to be interactive, meaning that a group of people collaborate to produce and edit information.

When I was using a wiki, it was difficult to set up controls about how information could be edited. I needed my information to be static, or at least edited only by me. Now, wikis are much improved so that page-editing controls are manageable. Pages can be set up that can only be edited by me, the teacher, and other pages may be set up for groups of students to manage, each group with its own editing authority.

Unless you see a wiki in action, it’s difficult to understand the process. CommonCraft has an excellent tutorial video that makes wiki-use immediately intuitive. Once you watch this presentation, you’ll get it, and what’s more, you’ll want to get it: a wiki, that is. Watch and learn.

The three wikis mentioned in the video are PBwiki, Wetpaint, and Wikispaces.

Would I still use a wiki today, considering that they are better than ever for education purposes? Probably not. But only because I see much of that same wiki functionality in Google docs (collaboration, revision tracking), and I’m trying for simplicity’s sake to keep everything as close together–in one place–as possible.

Whether or not you decide to integrate a wiki into your classroom planning, watch the video. Commoncraft is uncommonly good at rendering unfamiliar concepts easily understood. Presentation technique is the real lesson to be learned today.