06 August 2007

Teaching and Learning from Wikipedia

Why is the very best part of this brief article in the Chronicle stuck at the bottom? The headline should read "Program helps explain how Wikipedia works" or something that highlights the valuable lesson that can be learned from this kind of program. But I think the important thing here is to understand both how the program works and how wikipedia works.

That this software only looks at a contributor's past history but not at the facts themselves presents an interesting discussion into what constitutes reliability. One thing I would ask students to consider if we used this program was what kind of articles are being contributed to. If a contributor has been working on controversial entries, such as the VA Tech shootings or the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota, their contributions might have been deleted or overturned due to the nature of changing information. Again, it's an opportunity to discuss those instances and the pace of information rather than prescribe. And that gets to the very crux of what makes wikipedia so wonderfully exciting: it draws on everyone's knowledge and everyone's input. But that is also what makes it so wonderfully exciting as a critical thinking exercise too! (Students roll their eyes when I say that part)

One of my favorite learning activities in information literacy sessions is to have students edit wikipedia so they can see what it really means to have an encyclopedia anyone can edit. Again, by seeing their edits immediately saved, they get a sense of how quickly information changes which I think is essential for students to contextualize as they try to make sense of what is appropriate for school v. their general curiosity.

Finally, I have started reading a great book, Wikinomics, and while I am only a bit into it, the argument that so much can be acheived socially but economically through collaboration is affirming and exhilirating. But most importantly is the case the authors' make for the necessity of collaboration. They suggest that if you don't adapt and come together, you are only showing yourself the door. They give numerous examples of this in the corporate world but I think the notion extends easily to the world of higher ed. Discussion, sharing, and working together to develop arguments, solutions and, occasionally, answers seems essential in the inner workings of institutions just as it does in the classroom, faculty lounge, or laboratory. We shouldn't just teach it, we should practice it.

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