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Get Your Facts Straight: Wikipedia Can Help Your Children Learn

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Ever since Wikipedia’s inception in 2001, high school and college students have turned to it for information-gathering and research when completing their assignments or writing papers.

Professors and teachers scoffed at Wikipedia from the beginning, forbidding students to cite information from the website, and telling students that the open source web-based online encyclopedia was not a reliable source for factual information.

Ten years later, it seems professors may need to sing a different tune, or at least approach assignments in a different way. Teachers may need to make Wikipedia an integral part of their students’ assignments.

Brenna Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C. assigned her first-year students in an English class to write short biographies of Canadian writers that she told them would later be posted on Wikipedia.

“What she found was that the moment the students realized their work was going public in a forum over which they had no control, they took the work a lot more seriously. They became concerned, for example, with the accuracy of facts,” according to a press release on Gray’s findings.

Gray purported that it's not only the fact that the students were going to be held accountable for their work that stimulated them to perform better, but also “it was the realization that in producing the Wikipedia entries they were acquiring skills that were transferable to other parts of their lives,” according to the release.

Gray’s students took their assignment more seriously and worked harder at it, she said, because the Wikipedia skills are perceived as transferable to their daily lives. The Wikipedia skills they were developing and honing during the course of their assignment will ultimately help them outside the classroom. And that, after all, is what students focus most on – acquiring practical skills they use outside of school.

Gray presented the results of the study at the 2011 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Add a Comment8 Comments

My $10 appears to be safe. Nobody -- not even Dr. Gray -- has been able to produce anything tangible related to this "study" of hers. I wonder how she presented a "paper" or a "report" or a "talk" at that conference without any physical notes or slides or anything. Sounds very unprofessional, just like Wikipedia.

June 4, 2011 - 6:30am

There is most assuredly an element of fear or being pubicly called out or humiliated for creating work that is not factual or is borrowed from someone else that this Wikipedia assignment would have instilled. The teacher's choice to publish or not publish the articles on Wikipedia is not a reflection of irresponsibility. After all, is Wikipedia not an open-source online encyclopedia? Wikipedia has no age restrictions or limitations for posting content, so long as it is factual and can further enhance information spread and knowledge.

Am I in agreeance that all professors in all assignments moving forward should instill this same fear, assign this same type of project so that students will be motivated to get the facts correct and ultimately have their work published on Wikipedia? No. BUT, if a professor has found a way that worked for her and her students that resulted in a positive outcome, better learning envirnoment or more dedicated and motivated students, then I believe it a positive thing for her to share her experiment/study/findings with the rest of the academic world so that, going forward, the classroom and the way we reach and impact our students in the classroom can be meaningful and impactful and can evolve with the technologies and benefits of the Internet.

Is this the be-all, end-all way for students to learn? No. Is there ANY be-all, end-all way for students to learn? No. Do all children learn in the exact same manner? No.

Is the exploration of different methods of learning and teaching a worthy expedition? I think most definitely so. If one teacher's methods help children produce better work, become more motivated or become more involved in the process of writing/fact-checking...then isn't that worth sharing with other professors? Because even if other professors don't mimic Gray's exact assignment, it could spark other ideas for future assignments that ultimately lead to a better learning experience for students and hopefully, ultimately, a better-educated society.

June 1, 2011 - 10:18pm
EmpowHER Guest

How, exactly, were the students going to be "held accountable" for their work in this context? Were they posting to Wikipedia under their real names, and did they have user pages that identified them specifically? I doubt any teacher would be so irresponsible as to demand something like that from underaged students... If you're saying they would have been "held accountable" within the course like they would be for any other assignment, that's not quite the same thing. I might also take issue with the idea that Wikipedia activity can "translate" to useful skills in later life, but that largely depends on what one plans to do with that life.

Regardless, you're not really describing how Wikipedia can "help children learn"; you're describing a means of motivating children to do what they should be doing anyway, which is try to get their facts straight in homework assignments. And, quite honestly, it sounds like this kind of motivation is mostly based on fear, perhaps of being publicly embarrassed by getting it wrong on a heavily-viewed public website. That sort of fear isn't always a bad thing, but obviously if you described it that way, it wouldn't sound quite as nice for the parents, would it?

June 1, 2011 - 9:54pm
EmpowHER Guest

I wonder, though, if the students are instructed on how Wikipedia erodes centuries of practice in scholarship, attribution, respect for copyrights, and more? I also wonder if the students are informed about how the Wikimedia Foundation spends on program services only 43 cents of every tax-exempt donated dollar, earning it one star (out of four) in program efficiency, according to Charity Navigator? I also wonder if the students are made aware of the history of Wikimedia projects publishing child pornography? You see, there is much more than meets the eye at Wikipedia, especially if educators plow forward with a pre-determined outcome in mind, then set their studenrs' expectations to fulfill that outcome. Would we teach marketing students about the practice by having them intern (for free) at a telemarketing firm? Would we teach urban studies students by assigning them a project of living as a homeless person for a week? Would we teach women's studies students by asking them to pose (for free) for Hustler magazine? I know these are fairly radical analogies, but by asking students to participate (for free) in an online community that not only undermines traditional academia but also has many, many distasteful skeletons in the closet, we're exploiting young adults without giving them a fair perspective on ALL SIDES of their experience.

I can't wait to begin that "conversation" that Dr. Gray seeks -- but first she has to disclose her information with the general public. Surely, she did not issue a press release based only on some haphazard observations she made when she tried a new thing in her classroom?

June 1, 2011 - 2:45pm
(reply to Anonymous)

The above comment is mine. Apparently EmpowHER signs out users on each visit.

June 1, 2011 - 2:47pm

The above comment was from me (Bailey). Sorry, wasn't logged in at the time.

June 1, 2011 - 1:12pm

Bailey, I will give $10 to the first person who can provide me with a copy of Dr. Gray's "study". I've been waiting for days for any reply from her, and I'm beginning to suspect that this "study" failed just about every aspect of the scientific method.

(By the way, I graduated from Winter Park High School.)

June 1, 2011 - 12:44pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to thekohser)


Thanks for your interest in the article and for checking its validity. At this point, I don't believe there is an official study published in any sort of academic journal. I'm not sure of her exact methodology or how many trials she ran, but I believe the point of the article and her experiment was to further advance the conversation about how we can integrate technology into the classroom. Gray's hopes that her initial 'experiment' or 'findings' will allow for valid, academic research to be carried out and to determine ways to help children perform better in the classroom.

To answer your original question... No, I don't believe she has an official study published anywhere. Rather, she presented her experiment and findings at the 2011 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

From there, further investigation needs to be made.

June 1, 2011 - 1:11pm
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