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Teaching Information Literacy using Wikipedia

Or: why I send my freshman students to Wikipedia first thing in the semester.

Shocking, I know. Irresponsible? No, I promise: my students are better for it.

Every fall I teach a first-year seminar for 20 honors students. It’s a critical reading/critical thinking class with a topic drawn from the history of American pop culture. So far I have developed two that I’m alternating from year to year (Roadside America, and American Carnival); they’re pretty much the same course and with similar assignments, just different historical content. The main goal is to give students practice working with different kinds of sources and learning to “do things” with them: to read them critically and respond intelligently, to use them to build interpretive arguments recognizable in the humanities, to explore aspects of cultural history off the beaten path. The first time I taught it, I chose five things I wanted them to learn to “read” in this way: a primary source text, a photograph, a scholarly article, a film, and a novel.

At our institution the first-year experience (FYE) program is undergoing some tweaking, and one of the new campus-wide goals for the first-year seminars includes some introduction to information literacy–i.e. students locating, using and evaluating library and online resources in the context of their coursework. So I added one more assignment to my original five: How to Read a Wikipedia Article. A Wikipedia article is, of course, no less a cultural text than is a historic photograph, a scholarly article, or a diary entry and students need to become critical users of it (since we’re not kidding anyone by thinking they won’t use it anyway). My assignment is something akin to Jeremy Boggs’s (“Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey,” Clioweb 4/6/2009), but without the added steps of having students contribute to and watch the article.

I’m really happy with this as an initial assignment, one of the very first things my students will do and write about in college. It gets them to take something so familiar that it has become part of the digital wallpaper of their world, and to actually *see* it for the first time. I introduce the project by demonstrating the parts of a Wikipedia page, and when I show them that the article is only the front facade, and that behind it are a discussion page and a page with all the revisions back to the very first one: a light always goes on in their eyes. I have yet to encounter a student that was aware of the existence of these other pages or who had ever noticed the tabs across the top of a Wikipedia entry. That’s how taken-for-granted it is. I do have some students who have been warned off using Wikipedia in high school, but without any explanation of why (beyond a dismissive “it’s unreliable because anyone can change it”), so students know only to be afraid/suspicious of it without interrogating it further… hardly the critical, scholarly stance we want to model for them or want them to acquire as a higher education outcome. Giving them permission to scrutinize Wikipedia, and not just avoid it, empowers students. When you uncover the design and the back end of a Wikipedia article, it stops being an object of mystery and becomes an object of inquiry.

The (short) paper asks students to simply investigate the article’s history, authors, controversies on the discussion page, projects it’s part of, external links and references; and (here’s an important piece) to reflect on what they learned by doing so. Their comments made abundantly clear that this simple task could be a powerful tool for teaching information literacy. I got this, for example:

After completing the analysis of this Wikipedia article, I feel thoroughly enlightened. I had no idea that each person who edited the article could be tracked and that the article is constantly monitored for errors and vandalism. I find the Discussion page a useful tool for discovering which information in the article is controversial, opinion or disputed fact. Now that I have learned how to properly assess a Wikipedia article for legitimate information, my research skills have definitely improved, as well as the quality of my research papers. No longer is Wikipedia a mystery to me, and its information is less ambiguous now that I know where it originated.

And this:

This project has taught me a lot about Wikipedia. In high school, I was always banned from using it as a source because it was ‘not credible’ and ‘edited by vandals’. But after completing this project I have learned that when used properly, Wikipedia can be a valuable source to any project. I never knew you could view the history of who edited the article until working on this. I will now view this part of every Wikipedia page I view or get information from. I also didn’t know anything about the discussion page. I was very interested to see other people’s questions and comments about the article, and reading this page answered many of my own questions. I also plan to edit articles myself when I see a mistake or vandalism to become part of this growing community of biographers and documenters. Knowing that thousands of people from all over the world came together and created this one article amazes me.

And also this:

This lab has definitely taught me to look at Wikipedia articles differently than I have in the past. When choosing to take information from an article for research purposes I will first look at the authors, number of revisions, discussions, and sources. If there seems to be too many unreliable authors, or illegitimate sources, the article may not be the best option to use in my research. Also, if there are major arguments in the discussion board over key information, the article may not be reliable at that point in time. If there are many purposeful revisions and the latest version is recent, the information within the article is most likely dependable and useful. The biggest lesson as a result of the lab is that Wikipedia is not always a source of false or fabricated information from unqualified authors.

Since there’s nothing particularly course-specific about this assignment, I also think it could serve well as an embedded assessment for first-year writing and information literacy skills if it were assigned in all the first-year seminars at the same time, and could be easily scaled up across the entire freshman class. It would be lovely to think that *all* students learned something about mindful use of Wikipedia within the first few weeks of starting college, wouldn’t it?

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