WIKIPEDIA: A Democratic Source of Information? Or an Unreliable One?

By Julie Weiss

 

To the Teacher:

After Sarah Palin recently described Paul Revere's ride incorrectly, some people - presumably her supporters - changed the account of Revere's ride on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to match Palin's version. After a tug-of-war over whose story would remain on the site, Wikipedia froze the Paul Revere entry so that no one could make any more changes, at least for the time being.

The incident reignited a controversy that has come up before about this hugely popular online encyclopedia, which anyone can contribute to or edit. Some people believe that Wikipedia democratizes knowledge by eliminating the traditional gatekeepers like newspaper editors and book publishers - along with their profit motive. It allows everyone to be an expert, and makes available information that might not otherwise reach a wide audience.

But not everyone agrees with that analysis. Some people, including many teachers, question Wikipedia's validity as an information source. If everyone can write entries, they argue, then anyone can slant a story any way they want, or even falsify it (like, for example, Palin's supporters).

In this lesson, students complete a jigsaw activity in which they learn about three Wikipedia controversies. Then they decide whether they think Wikipedia is a reliable information source.

Goals:

  • To understand reading and share information
  • To understand a controversial issue
  • To decide whether Wikipedia is a reliable information source and explain how they reached the decision
     

1. Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group one of the following articles to read:

The Online Credibility Gap (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/6/05)

David Rivera's War with Wikipedia (Politico, 4/7/11)

Shedding Hazy Light on a Midnight Ride (New York Times, 6/13/11)

Explain that each person in the group should read the article, and then the group should discuss it. In the discussion, each group should identify and write down the most important points in the article, as well as any questions that the article raises for the group. At the end of the discussion, each group will choose a representative to tell the class about the content of its group's article. The goal of each presentation is to give class members enough information about the article's content that everyone knows as much as if they had all read all the articles.

2. Use the following questions to guide a class discussion, which will help prepare students for the final activity. If the class needs more information to answer some questions, you might assign students to research them.

  • What is the purpose of Wikipedia? What goal does it aim to achieve with its content?
  • Who writes Wikipedia's entries? Who edits them? Who verifies their accuracy?
  • How does the writing, editing, and verifying of Wikipedia entries compare to the processes used by traditional encyclopedias?
  • What does it mean to say that internet content is "too much information, not enough judgment"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Have you used Wikipedia for research projects? Why or why not? Would you use it now? Why or why not?
     

3. Tell students that for the next part of the lesson, they will take the role of a teacher. Ask them to write an essay that responds to this scenario:

You're a teacher and have recently gotten many research papers that use Wikipedia as a source. You and your colleagues disagree about whether Wikipedia is a legitimate source for student research. You have been asked to write a position paper for your fellow teachers explaining your point of view: Would you allow your students to use Wikipedia as a source for writing research papers? Explain why or why not, and use evidence that you gather from at least three sources to support your decision.

 

Closing

After students have submitted their papers, ask the class: Has your thinking about Wikipedia changed? If so, how and why? If not, why not?

 

We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.