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.