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Information Literacy: Getting Wiki With It

An online encyclopedia that anyone can edit? Depending on whom you ask, that’s Wikipedia’s greatest strength—or weakness. Either way, it’s an object lesson for Web-savvy students.

By Cindy Long

Brent Freccia, a social studies teacher at Newark High School in Delaware and a self-proclaimed “avid wiki-person,” created an entry for his school on Wikipedia, the oft-visited online encyclopedia and go-to source for students writing research papers. He provided details on the school’s history, its academic and athletic achievements, district and demographic information, a list of the school’s organizations, and even a section for interesting trivia. A few months later, the entry was vandalized.

“It is also not only home to several drug dealers and moderately to severely drug addicted teenagers, but also an outlandishly steep count of fear and stupidity,” an anonymous user wrote.

“Obviously, this is not the work of an objective mind [or] a true statement about the environment at my school,” Freccia says.

Wikipedia calls itself “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” (A wiki, according to its self-titled entry on, is a Web site that “allows any visitor to edit its content.”) It’s because of this open editing feature that Wikipedia draws praise, criticism, and, at times, vandals. Depending on whom you ask, its unfettered access is Wikipedia’s greatest strength or its greatest weakness. And because of that disagreement, Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for educators trying to teach information literacy in the digital age.

“A lot of teachers limit student use of Web sites for research projects, but I feel that limiting access only hurts the students,” Freccia says. “There is so much out there, students just have to learn how to ‘read’ the sites and how to research accordingly.”

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has described Wikipedia as “an effort to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” As of August 2006, Wikipedia contained more than 4.6 million articles in 200 languages, including more than 1.3 million in the English-language version.

Although Wikipedia’s openness allows visitors to alter entries—past examples of abuse include members of the House of Representatives removing broken campaign promises from their entries and a user from the CIA vandalizing an article on the current president of Iran—most vandalistic edits are quickly found and deleted by “Wikipedians,” the volunteer editors and contributors who number just over 1 million. About 1,000 editors have been selected by the Wikipedia community as trustworthy enough to serve as administrators. Notably, nearly one-third of these are age 18 or younger.

The vandalism to Freccia’s entry on Newark High School was cleaned up by a “hall monitor”—a member of Wikipedia’s Recent Changes Patrol, a division of the site’s Counter Vandalism Unit. The offending edit was removed and because he was the creator of the entry, Freccia was notified. “If the hall monitor hadn’t changed it back, I would have done so,” he says.

Given what the site calls its “radical openness,” its own online description admits that an “article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state, such as in the middle of a large edit, a controversial rewrite, or recently vandalized.” On the other hand, “having a very large number of active writers and editors in many languages, Wikipedia often provides access and breadth on subject matter that is otherwise inaccessible or little documented.” Some of Wikipedia’s editors have called this approach a “socially Darwinian evolutionary process.”
But by allowing anyone to contribute, critics claim that Wikipedia is not authoritative and is unreliable. Bernard Haisch is president of the Digital Universe Foundation, which is creating the “anti-Wikipedia”—a peer-reviewed encyclopedia site counting academics and experts among its contributors.

“Our aim is to provide a venue where the world experts can put their best information that’s been looked at and vetted by the academic community and can stand up to scrutiny,” says Haisch, who hired Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger to help him develop the Digital Universe after Sanger publicly criticized Wikipedia’s lack of respect for expertise.

Currently in beta form, the Digital Universe will be a multi-year project its founders hope will become the “PBS of the Web.” The project was inspired by the “Encyclopedia Galactica” envisioned by Isaac Asimov, which is a hypothetical encyclopedia of a future galaxy-spanning civilization, containing all the knowledge accumulated by a society with trillions of people and thousands of years of history. (This definition, it should be mentioned, is from Wikipedia.)

If lack of expertise is a fault, one of Wikipedia’s clear advantages is its ability to update quickly as events unfold. (A 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict entry was created on July 12, six hours after Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers.) To keep the Digital Universe timely with entries about breaking news and events, Haisch says it will create a separate news section containing citizen journalism, with one important distinction—anonymous comments will not be allowed. “People don’t always engage in good behavior when they don’t have to stand behind what they’re posting,” he says.

Unreliable resources—in any medium—are nothing new, according to Adam Frey, co-founder of Wikispaces, a wiki hosting company with a large educator member base. “Wikipedia is a great way for students to learn the fact that every resource must be checked, and it’s a great starting point for research,” he says.

When students cast their nets into the ocean of online information, they’re bound to come up with some rubbish. Many educators believe it’s all part of the learning process and the development of information literacy.

“I think everyone, students and teachers, should be wary of ‘popular’ reference sources available on the Web,” says John Hauser, the former librarian of Central Bucks East High School in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. “I could not emphasize this enough with students who would accept any source as long as it was printable. It’s vital for teachers to emphasize the importance of students using reliable resources, rather than taking the first item listed on [Wikipedia] or on a search engine.”

But with wiki technology, students can go beyond simply reading sites to helping write them as well, fulfilling the Web’s promise of becoming a fully interactive medium. According to Frey, whether or not Wikipedia is a reliable source is beside the point. Its value, he says, is in its collaborative nature. “It’s an organic product, it’s an interactive product, and it’s a community product,” he says. “You can’t compare it to traditional resources. It encourages us to accept that in today’s world, anyone can be a published author.”

In fact, Frey wants to advance that notion, which is why he helped create Wikispaces with educators as a target audience. “Classroom work is about engaging students with content, enabling them to contribute and collaborate, and being able to measure their contributions. Wikis are a perfect tool for this kind of work,” he says. “It’s a way for the student to digest and produce information in collaboration with other students and the teacher….The fun comes from students being able to work with each other and take responsibility for the learning process....They get a real buzz out of seeing their part of the project live on.”

After creating the Newark High School entry on Wikipedia and “tweaking” entries on other topics of interest, including Fort Miles (a military installation during World War II in Delaware) and favorite television shows (like Star Trek, 24, and the Amazing Race), Freccia decided to take it a step further by creating his own personal wiki—“Wikifreccia”—on Wikispaces.

He’s found in his wiki a useful way to eliminate handouts, to enable parents to follow along with what is happening in his classes, and to allow students who missed class to download work that needs to be made up. He’s found that the collaborative nature of the wiki site helps students work together and build upon each other’s research, allowing everyone to get involved. And because edits are clearly visible in history pages, students take more responsibility for their contributions. Best of all, it engages his students.

“Engaged students are interested students,” Freccia says. “If they have a means to learn in addition to the traditional classroom—with resources and the ability to connect with one another—the possibilities are endless.” 

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