Wikipedia in the classroom: A question of critical use?

Wikipedia is a free Internet encyclopaedia which is immensely popular with its high availability. One of the basic principles of Wikipedia is that everybody is a potential collaborator. This distinguishes Wikipedia from other encyclopaedias, seeing it as there is not any editorial panel or the like controlling the content. It is easy to register, and there is no hierarchy in terms of people contributing with text.

In the classroom, Wikipedia has, since it was launched in 2001, been a very obvious place for students to look for information. If you make a search for a topic using Google, you are very likely to find a wiki-page about the information you are looking for. Some teachers have addressed the problematic side of this, and a result has sometimes been that students use information from Wikipedia uncritically. Consequently, the role of Wikipedia in the classroom is an important one which should not be ignored.

Blikstad-Balas and Hvistendahl (2013) contrasts Internet texts, such as Wikipedia, with textbooks for classroom use:

“While published textbooks are often evaluated and approved by professionals on the subject they concern, written with educational goals according to the national curriculum, and have clear expectations of prior knowledge, Internet texts are typically not written to serve educational purposes, they are in general not approved or evaluated by professionals in the field, nor are they designed to fit a specific age group with an intended amount of prior knowledge”

(Blikstad-Balas & Histendahl, 2013, pp 33-34)

The emphasis is placed on whether texts are educationally intended or not. Whereas textbooks are written for educational use, Wikipedia, for instance, is not. More recently, the encouragements on references to Wikipedia articles solve some aspect in terms of the educational uses. An earlier problem with Wikipedia has been the lack of references used. Without any references, students have no options to investigate whether the information they find is credible.

At present, more and more texts on Wikipedia have references. This changes the way users interact with Wikipedia. Even though references can be more or less polite, it is now possible to investigate where pieces of information come from. And how can this help, you might ask.

Well, in the national curriculum (LK06) gives clear instructions in the English subject curriculum that a critical digital awareness is important for students:

“This further involves using digital sources in written texts and oral communication and having a critical and independent attitude to the use of sources. Digital skills involve developing knowledge about copyright and protection of personal privacy through verifiable references to sources”

(UDIR, 2006, English subject curriculum, Digital skills).

Students are, thus, encouraged to be critical and independent. The teacher, hence, has a crucial role in encouraging the students to use Internet sources critically. The students cannot achieve this aim by using the textbook. Blikstad-Balas and Hvistendahl (2013) argue that it is a question of critical literacy: “It takes just as little critical literacy to find and reproduce all answers from a textbook, as it takes to find and reproduce the same answers from Wikipedia” (p. 44). Instead of trying to oppose Wikipedia use, educators should try to see the clear advantages of enabling their students to use Internet texts critically. Age and level of reflection are elements that are connected. However, by starting at an early age in terms of copyright, plagiarism, and credibility, etc., students may develop a critical digital competence more efficiently. This requires a joint responsibility from both teacher and students.


(Creative Commons Licence, Garry Knight, 2012, Students study).


Blikstad-Balas, M., & Hvistendahl, R. (2013). Students’ digital strategies and shortcuts. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 2013(1), 32-48.

UDIR. (2006). Læreplanverket for Kunnskapsløftet (LK06). Oslo: Utdanningsdirektoratet.


8 thoughts on “Wikipedia in the classroom: A question of critical use?

  1. Hi Kim-Daniel,
    some thoughts on your post on Wikipedia although I feel that I have more questions than answers and opinions to offer. I definitely agree with Blikstad and Hvistendahl on the need for critical literacy and that this does not only apply to the use of the internet and digital resources. I still remembered students who told me that what they had said or written in a presentations had to be right because they “had read it in a book, seen it on TV etc.” If I then said that they were wrong and tried to convince them that I might have more knowledge than the person having done the TV show because I had studied the topic for years and had indeed read a few more books on the topic they were very doubtful. It was especially hard to believe for them that what they had read in a book could be wrong.
    My question now is: How do we teach critical literacy? I think we can all agree that the old litany of “don’t you copy and paste because that is cheating” does not suffice. Last year at PPU we had a lecture on this and the lecturer said that as a reader/ researcher you had to make a choice whether a source was trustworthy or not. But how do you make such a choice if you have not only little knowledge on the topic but even less knowledge about who is an authority on a topic and who might have some hidden agenda by publishing certain contents.
    I am convinced that developing critical literacy will be crucial in educating our students because we will just not be able to control what they do out there in the brave new world of the world wide web, and I certainly don’t want to.
    For me the question remains: How do I do this?

    • Thanks for the reply, Silke. I don’t think there is a simple answer to this. I believe exposure to a variety of texts might in many cases be a pre-requisite for developing critical literacy. However, encouraging learners to actively analyse texts in order to discover basic or hidden meanings is even more important. Learners should be supported to critically ask fundamental questions when encountering new texts, e.g.: “How reliable is the author of this text?”; “Is there an author of this text?”; “When was this text published?”; “What site is this text published at?”; Is this site reliable or respected?”; “Should I trust the content as an “absolute truth” just because the text is published at a .gov – site?”. Classrooms that inspire to questions like these are, at least, on the right track, although students might still go astray.

  2. Good blog entry, and I particularly like to see that you link your own reflections to relevant literature. This is actually a good way of processing the texts you read for this course.

  3. I agree with Anita that you have managed to strike a good balance here between presenting your own reflections and that of other studies. Also, you make a meaningful link between the National Curriculum and using Wikipedia for developing students’ critical thinking skills.

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