How Wikipedia Works/Appendix B

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Student use of Wikipedia is very widespread—and understandably so! Wikipedia is readily available, easy to use, and covers an immense amount of information about subjects that students at all levels study.

In addition to reading the site, students may even contribute. Recognizing this, some teachers have incorporated editing and analyzing Wikipedia articles into their syllabi. On the other hand, many teachers and schools have profound concerns about using Wikipedia. In this section, we'll talk about using Wikipedia in two educational contexts: as a reference resource used by students, both in and out of the classroom, and as a possible source of teaching material for classroom editing projects.

Wikipedia as a Classroom Reference Resource[edit]

Wikipedia makes a natural reference resource: It's free, easily accessible, and has a much greater breadth of coverage than most reference sources. The downsides of using Wikipedia in a classroom setting include, of course, the potential for inaccurate, incomplete, or vandalized material and, for young children, possibly inappropriate material.

One possible solution to these problems is to use Wikipedia article selections on CD or DVD, as summarized in Appendix A, Reusing Wikimedia Content. Two of these selections were designed specifically for schools, one particularly geared toward the UK National Curriculum. You can browse the articles on the DVD, which were edited and checked for suitability, at

For children or English-language learners, the Simple English Wikipedia may also be appropriate. Available at, this site aims to cover the same topics as the English-language Wikipedia, but in a simpler version of English. The breadth of the site is not nearly as large as that of the English-language Wikipedia, however, and many articles are still stubs.

Guiding Student Use of Wikipedia[edit]

Some school districts have banned the use of Wikipedia, an action which has made news.[37] The question is, of course, whether banning Wikipedia as a source will actually prevent students from using the site—or simply encourage students to avoid citing it. Our feeling is that students will use Wikipedia regardless; simply requiring students to go beyond Wikipedia (as with any encyclopedia) in their assignments may be a better solution. Students should cite additional sources for their projects, and often good Wikipedia articles can point students to some of those additional sources, though teachers should make sure these aren't the only references students use. Make your expectations regarding using Wikipedia for assignments clear. Discussing Wikipedia and its policies in detail can also be a good introduction to thinking critically about bias and authorship of any information source, online or off. Just figuring out what a neutral point of view might be for a controversial topic is a lesson in itself! Teaching students to assess each article separately, using the criteria mentioned in Chapter 4, Understanding and Evaluating an Article, is also important; Wikipedia is not a monolithic source and it should be clear that it is not of uniformly good or poor quality.

Whenever students use Wikipedia as a source, citing it accurately is important. Citations to Wikipedia should always include the (accurate) name of the article and a link to the particular version of the article that was accessed. You can get this by clicking either the Permanent link or the Cite This Page link on the left-hand sidebar when you are viewing an article. Cite This Page, in particular, provides an easy way to get citations for the article formatted using a number of academic styles. For instance, an American Psychological Association–style, or APA-style, citation generated by the Cite This Page feature for the article domestic sheep looks like this:

Domestic sheep. (2007, February 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:59, February 8, 2007, from php?title=Domestic_sheep&oldid=105635704

[37] See, for instance, Lynn Olanoff, "School officials unite in banning Wikipedia," November 21, 2007,, an earlier discussion on Slashdot at, and a Wikinews story from March 22, 2007, "Several US universities ban Wikipedia as primary source," This topic was discussed at Wikimania 2008; see

Assigning Wikipedia Editing[edit]

Several projects have been developed that incorporate editing Wikipedia articles into classroom activities. Some teachers (primarily at the university level) have even made contributing good Wikipedia articles a requirement in place of term papers. A list of current and ongoing projects can be found at Wikipedia:School and university projects, which also collects other resources for those trying to start a classroom project. Wikipedia:WikiProject Classroom coordination (shortcut WP:WPCC) also has a list of Wikipedia volunteers who are willing to help teachers work with Wikipedia at any level. If you start a classroom project, listing it on these pages and making other active editors aware of the articles your students are working on can be helpful; other editors are usually glad to help answer questions and help students navigate Wikipedia.

In general, assignments for student writing on Wikipedia should take into account the realities of the core policies and the fact that unwanted contributions will be quickly removed or changed. Make sure that students are familiar with Wikipedia and content policies and have time to experiment with editing and learn basic syntax. Having the students create logins (and having them edit while logged in) is also recommended, as this gives you a way to keep track of their contributions if they share their usernames with you. Keeping track of your students' contributions also helps you make sure things are going smoothly. Students can work individually or as a team, but it's important to reinforce that Wikipedia is generally a collaborative project. They will be working with other editors who are outside the school environment and who will not give them any special consideration for being students.

Assigning an article for cleanup or expansion is probably a better route to take than asking students to create brand-new articles. As noted in Chapter 5, Basic Editing, finding a new article topic that meets notability standards can be difficult; much of the "low-hanging fruit" is already taken. Wikipedia has hundreds of thousands of existing articles that could use a thorough reworking, however. (If you're working with advanced-level students in a topic area that needs to be expanded, requiring that students start new articles may be a good idea.) Be creative: If the class is focusing on a particular subject area, have students research new information to add to articles that need expanding or fact-check poorly cited articles. If you are teaching composition or editing, you might have students copyedit or rewrite poor-quality articles for practice. If you're teaching upper-level students, you might have them rate articles in their topic area or have students work on the article version in the Simple English Wikipedia as a way to practice explaining information clearly using simpler language. For students at any level, working on adding reliable references and sources to articles provides an ideal opportunity to learn research skills.

Finally, though it may be tempting, don't encourage students to add work written for another project, such as a term paper, directly to Wikipedia. Often such work is cast in a tone and style that is inappropriate for a general encyclopedia (see Chapter 6, Good Writing and Research). If you require students to edit Wikipedia articles, make this a separate writing project from other work.

Further Reading

Using Wikipedia in the Classroom An FAQ page for teachers and school administrators Guidelines on using Wikipedia as a source for doing research, helpful for students

Editing Wikipedia in the Classroom A list of school projects that focus on editing Wikipedia, along with many links to other resources A list of Wikipedians who are willing to help out with and "mentor" classroom projects A Signpost story on various Wikipedia classroom editing projects A list of papers that have studied Wikipedia and links to other research resources