At the recent Handheld Learning Festival 2009 I was talking about the use of Social Media in Schools. The session seemed to go well and generally has been quite well received.
One of the points from my presentation was that I felt that schools should have their own Wikipedia article about their school and the wider school community.
My argument for this was not only in itself does this present an opportunity for a fantastic cross-curricular project but it also can contribute to the positive ethos of a school. Many schools already have Wikipedia articles written about them and some of them present a negative picture of the learning community.
During my presentation this message was tweeted out by a few people in the audience and then in turn re-tweeted.Bart Van B (A geography teacher from Belgium and @geobart on Twitter) took a bit of an exception to what I was suggesting and an interesting three way conversation occurred between Alan Parkinson, Bart and myself.
I’ve documented the conversation to provide a bit of background by combining the tweets below:
Ollie: All schools should be written up on Wikipedia
Bart: I totally disagree on that matter. Wikipedia should only be used as a starting point, not as an actual reference.
Alan: Presumably Ollie Bray means that the students write the entry?
Bart: That's even worse (shivering at the mere thought of it). I think we should train examining and experimenting skills far more often than other children and even adults will copy and paste those mediocre entries in their presentation without questioning validity. We no longer allow students to use Wikipedia as a source at our geography department. Sorry, but 'wiki' and 'web 2.0' have become new hypes and there are apparently loads of lemmings on the premises following blindly.
Ollie: Yes, I was suggesting that schools should write there own Wikipedia entries...
Bart: I'm having serious questions about that. Maybe they should properly learn how to write. And will they just copy the entries from another source? And how will they be ever mature enough to discern true or valuable from rubbish? I'm so very scared this will be the ultimate rectification of the copy-and-paste mentality. I think writing an entry in a Wiki may be a form of presenting experiment results and conclusions though, but writing (filling up a wiki as a goal on itself is as useful/useless as making e.g. a powerpoint and sharing it.
Ollie: You have completely missed the point? I'll post a reply on my blog ASAP and I look forward to the debate from there...
Bart: Ok, I am very interested
So this is my reply - its a bit long but I hope that some readers will find it useful
First of all for the reasons that I’ve mentioned above I’m sticking to my point about schools having their own Wikipedia articles. The task presents a great opportunity for teachers to actually work with children to produce a good, well researched, appropriately referenced and collaborative article. By doing this we will avoid the creation of a ‘mediocre’ entry as Bart suggests and also teach children more about how Wikipedia works.
I also don’t think that wiki’s and web 2.0 are hypes. I think they are powerful tools for learning and part of an increasing teaching paradigm. I want to emphasis the word ‘tool’ here. A wiki in itself does not create good learning. But, if used appropriately and combined by sound pedagogy from the classroom teacher the results of using such resources can be outstanding. You only have to look as far as some of the great Wiki work going on at Perth Academy, Scotland led Neil Winton and his team to get a good understanding of the power of these tools.
A difficulty that we have is training teachers in this new technology and the pedagogy that is associated with it. This is where appropriate professional development within schools is needed. The East Lothian Teachmeet Roadshows are and excellent and sustainable example of this.
I’m a bit concerned that Bart seems to think that I’m suggesting that young people shouldn’t be taught to read and write? I’m not – but I am suggesting that Wiki’s and other engaging technology can be used to improve literacy and numeracy skills in young people. Again I’ll sight Neil Winton and his department as an example here.
I partly agree with Bart about his point about children presenting work in PowerPoint. But again this actually depends on the task. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting young people to submit work as a handwritten piece, word processed, as a web page, as a video, as a podcast, as poster or as a newspaper report. The reason for this is that all we are talking about here is presentation. In teaching we do often give some credit for presentation eg: how neat your handwriting is, if you have used a good page layout, if your video is well edited etc… But we actually normally give more marks / credit for research, planning and content of the piece of work. We also should give marks / credit for referencing.
Bart seems to be worried about a ‘cut and paste’ culture but banning wikis won’t stop this. Only by good teaching combined with instilling the idea of intellectual property and copyright in young people will we be able to reverse this shift in culture.
To be honest I don’t think there is any point in banning Wikipedia in schools. Students will continue to access it when they go home or on their mobile phones and therefore still use it to gain knowledge (no matter how accurate this knowledge is). If we ban Wikipedia in schools how can we ever teach young people to use this resource in a safe and responsible way? Its the same argument for most social networking sites.
What we should be doing is teaching students how to use Wikipedia properly – because it’s not going away.
It annoys me when people simply dismiss Wikipedia as a source because they feel it is not actuate. In my experience these are people who don’t really understand how it works and teachers need to understand how Wikipedia works so they can pass on this knowledge to their students.
The first thing that teachers need to understand about Wikipedia is that it openly acknowledges that it might not be accurate. You don’t have to look very far through it pages to see disclaimers like:
- 'The factual accuracy is disputed'
- 'This article contradicts another article'
- 'This article contradicts itself'
- 'This article reads like an advertisement'
- 'This article needs additional citation for verification'
I can’t remember ever seeing a disclaimers like these in a more traditional encyclopedia (eg: Britannica) or a Sunday newspaper. But these sources can also be wrong and the errors are often just corrected in a re-print of the encyclopedia or as an apology by the newspaper months or years later.
Young people should be being taught to question everything that they read on-line and in print. The Wikipedia disclaimers help remind us of this and should be being used by teachers as a teaching and learning point. Fundamentally, we should be getting children to use a bit of common sense to decide for themselves if something is true or not.
I think teachers can get students to use wikipedia in a more responsible way by:
1. Using the disclaimers as a starting point to help think about an article in a more critical way.
2. Challenging students to check to see how many times an article on Wikipedia has been edited. As a general rule I would say that if something has been edited a lot, it’s more likely to be accurate than if it’s just been put on-line and never edited. I still come across people who don't realize you can edit wikipedia.
4. Looking carfully at the original reference of articles (normally to other on-line sources). We should be teaching young people to follow the chain of references backwards to assess the credibility and validity of the original source.
I think good wikipedia article is produced by groups of people collaborating. The authors reach a compromise by allowing everyone who wants to put their own point of view across. A so-called expert with a strong opinion about exactly what should be said who keeps reverting an article back to only what they think will be locked out of Wikipedia.
Finally, a question I often get asked is ‘Is Wikipedia actuate?’. Some researchers at the University of Colorado would argue that some articles are more actuate than similar articles in Britannica. Wikipedia is also more up to date in terms of real time events – for example when Pluto was declassified as a planet in 2005 Wikipedia was up-dated almost straight away. Other more traditional encyclopedias had to wait for a re-print. There is of course difference between up to date and accuracy.
However, the simple truth and answer to the accuracy question is that, like books, WIkipedia is full of mistakes! But this is why we need to need to teach young people how to use it as a resource properly. It’s not going away and we certainly shouldn’t ban it from schools.