The debate about Wikipedia and its role in education continues to rage.Just last month, Brian Proffitt, a Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame wrote a well reasoned piece on why he believes Wikipedia has no place in the tertiary classroom. This was followed up with another, equally convincing article a week later by another practising academic, Jonathan Obar, explaining why he believes strongly that Wikipedia plays an essential part of education in the 21st Century.
Both articles raise valid points. Proffitt focuses upon the fact that by crowdsourcing information, there is no guarantee that the information is quality, and that Wikipedia is a major source of plagiarism, as students find it easier to copy text directly from a site that almost always appears in the first ten hits of any Google Search. Obar counters by arguing that the fact that the knowledge is crowdsourced provides an excellent opportunity to teach students not only critical literacy, but also a study in how knowledge is (and always has been) created – through debate, opinion and argument.
Currently, it is the decision of individual educators as to whether or not they encourage the use of Wikipedia in their classroom. It remains an immense resource of information – with William Cronon, the President of the American Historical Association stating that ‘Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history‘.
One way that teachers commonly suggest students use Wikipedia is as a place to begin their research. While it may not be the source of information that students actually cite, it is often a useful starting point, for students to get an overall introductory understanding of a topic, and to use some of the articles cited in the Wikipedia article as a jumping off point into more scholarly literature.
An excellent tool to assist at this stage of research is the WikiMindMap.
Wikimindmap takes a search term, and creates a mind map of related topics, which are either directly linked to Wikipedia pages, or which open up into further refinement.
An example, based on the search term ‘Sustainability’ is below:
The best search results currently appear to be derived from en.wikipedia.org. When sustainability is entered into the search box, the following results appear:
Hovering over the term Sustainability in the centre brings up a useful definition, and direct link to the Wikipedia page.
When you click on the topics with the green arrows, a further search using these key words occurs – the topics in rectangles with the plus symbol indicates a further tree, with a narrowing of the topics focused around that general area. A blue arrow out symbol points to an external website.
This tool is terrific for students who are facing research on a broad topic, and need to narrow down their focus, or for students who simply don’t know where to begin their research. Since the Google Wonderwheel was discontinued, WikiMindMap might prove to be a useful research tool for any student’s kit.
For those using mobile devices, the app Wikinodes provides a similar search tool, but with the added functionality of note-taking and the ability to share articles via email, Twitter or Dropbox. The note-taking feature is particularly interesting, with students able to add text, visual or audio notes. These notes are then able to be added to a ‘presentation’, so that they may be shared with others.
These tools are useful no matter what your opinion is on the quality of the content in Wikipedia – even if only to teach the concept of drilling down from a general topic to more specific keywords that will shape searches more effectively.
Don’t write off Wikipedia – using it creatively could be the key to more effective research by all students of every level.