Using Wikipedia effectively in schools

  • Using Wikipedia effectively in schools

With many teachers still insisting learners cite ‘anything but Wikipedia’, Dr Nicola Davies considers the pedagogical arguments in favour of the fifth most visited website worldwide…

The objective of Wikipedia is to serve as a compendium of public knowledge that has been collected collaboratively. Any student conducting research on the internet will inevitably stumble across the site, as it is often among the first results produced by Google. Furthermore, when writing an essay or preparing a presentation, there is nothing more convenient than Wikipedia – it provides quick and easy access to information and allows students to gain a broad overview of a particular topic. Subsequently, despite initial resistance, some teachers have started to encourage learners to read Wikipedia articles in order to broaden their knowledge of curriculum topics. For example, Ross Morrison McGill, deputy head of a large inner London comprehensive school confirms that he uses Wikipedia “for definitions, crowdsourcing information and for finding some quick facts about specific conversations in class. I will talk to students about the reliability and validity of the information.” The veracity of the information supplied on Wikipedia depends on the external sources used by the writer, as well as on the ability of editors to comprehend and evaluate those sources accurately and to adequately utilise and present them; naturally, some pages may be more trustworthy than others. Therefore, students need to use their discretion regarding the content and double-check information against other credible sources. Andy Lewis, Head of Year 10 at a Catholic secondary school in Upminister, Essex, says, “I educate students about wikis - we talk about copyright theft, vandalism, importance of quality of writing, collaborative work, and checking reliability.” Since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, it is feasible for an article to be biased, outdated, and/or factually inaccurate. However, this can be the case with almost any source. Furthermore, the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia articles doesn’t mean they are categorically unreliable. Indeed, a 2005 study, just four years after Wikipedia’s official launch, concluded that the majority of its articles were very close in accuracy to, and occasionally more accurate than, those in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Moreover, there is a dedicated Wikipedia community, with members who question every change in an article for veracity and bias. Although some unverified or opinionated information makes it into articles, it will be repeatedly reviewed and debated by editors, and revised where necessary.

What’s in it for schools?

Wikipedia’s biggest advantages as a research tool are its accessibility, easy navigation, plethora of links to relevant topics, and the vast sea of up-to-the minute information it provides. All of these attributes make Wikipedia excellent for introducing students to a new subject. An interesting learning tool derived from Wikipedia is Wikipedia for Schools, initiated by SOS Children, a UK-based charity working with children in need around the world. Wikipedia for Schools is a compilation of Wikipedia articles that are compatible with the UK school curriculum. The 4th edition boasts 6,000 articles, 26 million words and 50,000 images - all organised according to curriculum categories. This tool is an example of a new approach to Wikipedia in academic circles - embracing it as a platform for student assignments. A prodigious project launched in 2010 is the Wikipedia Education Program (, which is administered by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging the growth of Wikipedia. The primary purpose of the Wikipedia Education Program is to allow educators and students to contribute to Wikipedia in an academic setting. Educators utilising this program assign students the task of contributing to Wikipedia on course related topics. In certain parts of the world, the academic setting for students is that of a traditional classroom and Wikipedia editing tasks form part of course assignments. Elsewhere, students may contribute to Wikipedia as a member of a club, or a participant in a workshop, or by way of a community service. As a result of the growing use of Wikipedia within schools, an online orientation resource for educators has been created, comprising Wikipedia-editing basics, tips for using Wikipedia in the classroom, and examples of classroom assignments. This resource is useful for educators who allocate Wikipedia assignments to their students as it assists students to edit articles, research topics, and to collaborate with other students. Students who participate in the program have shown considerable improvements in reading, writing, researching, critical thinking, and translation skills. They also gain better understanding of copyright and citation. The key for teachers to successfully instruct their students on the effective use of Wikipedia is to alter young people’s perceptions of the website. It is important to understand that Wikipedia is not an ‘actual’ encyclopaedia; rather, it is a collection of information compiled from a multitude of sources, which must be verified. This in itself can be used to encourage critical thinking, as well as providing motivation and satisfaction as learners become part of the site’s development.

Living History

Histropedia (, an open platform that enables people worldwide to collaborate and share their historical knowledge, allows users to catch a glimpse of history on an interactive timeline. They can peruse all periods of history at once and zoom in to discover more about a certain period. The current beta version already incorporates 1.5 million events, and those not in the database can be easily imported from Wikipedia. It is anticipated that the final version will be finished by the end of 2014. This innovative teaching tool was the brainchild of Navino Evans. The idea was sparked by Evans’ desire to create more engaging mathematics lessons for his students. He explains, “I was struggling to piece together the history of the Babylonian and Egyptian number systems, despite the fact that the information I was looking for was already in Wikipedia. The idea of an interactive timeline based on Wikipedia was born directly from this realisation. Time is something that teachers are always short of, so creating engaging and exciting lessons is often sacrificed. Using Histropedia, teachers can create engaging interactive timelines for use in lessons within minutes.” Histropedia can be used as a novel method to teach history. “Students can be given questions to answer, where they must use a given timeline to discover the answers,” suggests Evans. “This could include extension questions for more able pupils, which require them to build on the given timeline by adding new events.” Students could also be tasked with creating their own timelines using information they have been taught or researched. “Histropedia can also be used to help see how different subjects in the curriculum relate to each other,” Evans continues. “For example, students studying Shakespeare or Dickens could add them to a timeline to see what the world was like during each author’s lifetime.” Evans’ vision is to create something similar to Google Earth - but for exploring time instead of space, and allowing students to browse any time period, from billions of years down to a single day ago. They will be able to filter the contents to show any type of content they are interested in – by event, topic or location. “You will also be able to switch seamlessly between a timeline and map view, colour code timelines, compare multiple timelines at once, to name but a few exciting things we have planned,” he explains. “From the student perspective, ease of use gives them the freedom to explore and experiment with history in a way that has not been possible previously. We believe this will help them move beyond the basic curriculum of study when they come across areas of history they find interesting.”

About the author

Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog: