Stepping outside the box: information literacy via Wikipedia


Wikipedia is one of those resources that librarians and educators discourage students from using for research purposes.   Fair enough – after all, students need to learn to source their information from a range of quality resources and develop the skills to synthesise that information in order to think critically, construct cogent arguments and create new knowledge.

Yet, let’s face it, we use Wikipedia a lot ourselves, as do the students.

Given this, are there ways that Wikipedia can be used as a learning tool in the classroom?  Judging from the number of interesting looking projects on the Wikipedia for School and University Projects website, it seems that it can.

In particular, can learning with Wikipedia be a way of providing effective information literacy instruction?

I attended a very interesting and inspiring webinar a few days ago, joining around 25 NZ librarians for a discussion on the topic “Who’s Afraid of Wikipedia in the Classroom?” Hosted by Sally Pewhairangi (@sallyheroes) and Megan Ingle (@megingle), the webinar was the last in the Reality Librarianship 2013 speaker series. Guest speaker, Sara Roberts – a law librarian from the University of Canterbury – spoke about her experience in assisting law students with an international human rights assignment that required students to contribute an article to Wikipedia.

Provided with a list of Wikipedia articles on human rights that either needed revision or elaboration, as well as suggestions for topics for where there was a ‘gap’ in the information, the students could create an entirely new page, build on a ‘stub’ or write a subsection.  They not only had to create the content, but learn the specialised technological skills required to conform to Wikipedia’s strict requirements and guidelines.

In the webinar Sara spoke about the way in which information literacy was an important part of the learning experience.  Aside from the skills they developed through having to come to grips with the technological aspects of the task (which was very challenging for many of them), the students increased their awareness of information literacy issues, such as evaluation, authority and referencing.

For example, the students learned about the kinds of information they could find on Wikipedia, and in order to complete their task successfully, they were required to make judgements on the authoritative nature of the material, as well as its quality.  They had to evaluate whether the articles needed improving and where there were omissions.  They needed to consider what references were being used and whether they were adequate.  These evaluations formed the basis for their choice about what they would write about or edit.

So, what did I take away from the webinar?

I feel that it is significant that the library’s involvement came about as a response to an existing need from the faculty.  Rather than the library saying to the faculty: ‘This is what we do, this is what we can offer’, the academics were asking ‘Are you willing to do this?’

The library needs to be prepared to say ‘Yes!’

It’s great to see librarians developing their skills in new directions and extending the kind of pedagogical activities they are engaging with. Arguably, it is imperative that they do, in order to continue to be relevant in a rapidly changing education environment.

Expectations, tools, models and modes of learning are shifting, and librarians need to be prepared to change with it.   This requires extending the notion of what they teach from ‘information literacy’ to the more expansive ‘digital literacy’. It also means being willing to integrate more closely with the curriculum, which requires a greater level of collaboration and engagement with academics.

I was impressed that Sara embraced the challenge to learn how Wikipedia could be used in the classroom.  Rather than say ‘No, we librarians don’t do that kind of thing’, she said ‘Yes, we’d love to give it a go!’.

Sometimes it’s only by jumping in, trying something new and risking failure, that we discover what the possibilities are.

Must read: Megan Ingles’ great blog on the webinar –  Information Literacy by stealth #RL2013 .

4 Responses

  1. Why do “librarians and educators discourage students” from using Wikipedia. Using an encyclopedia as a starting point is always good. Wikipedia is and expert sourced collaboration. Just as we all should consider our role in collaboration we should encourage students to use Wikipedia as a starting point.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks very much for your comment. It’s only recently that I have begun to ask the same question that you have posed, and challenge the assumptions underlying this seemingly prevalent attitude toward Wikipedia. I agree with you that encyclopaedias are an invaluable starting point. Finding out more about Wikipedia through the seminar – particularly learning about the strict controls that are applied to ensure a high standard is maintained, and seeing how collaboration in this context can work – was great.


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