“Attention: This article needs attention from an expert!” Yes, you’ve read that correctly and furthermore, I’m willing to admit that “the neutrality of this article is disputed”. Problematic and provocative, eh? These messages are actually Wikipedia templates used to tag non-authoritative, biased, poorly-cited or otherwise incomplete articles.
As I’ve gained contact with Wikipedia editor templates through my work editing various Wikipedia articles, it has occurred to me these messages – templates – play a valuable and generative role in ‘reading the wikipedia web’. Not only do they explicitly indicate content areas editors might address, they also provide readers with a visible warning about taking the content too literally. And when articles don’t contain these warnings, it takes significant critical reading skill to discern possible problems.
The article on Learning (since revised) provided a case-in-point. Originally, a section on transfer of learning read:
“The transfer of learning can be defined as extending what has been learned in one context to new contexts. Determining if and to what extent a person can transfer their learned knowledge can be a strong indication of the quality of the learning experience itself. Effective memorization of information does not equal a meaningful learning experience, because the knowledge acquired might not be understood.” [link to older version; emphasis added]
I appreciated that an editor recognized the multiple judgements made by the original text and posted an alert to that effect. The existence of this message made it much simpler to identify this information as information approach with skepticism, and provided a starting-point to explore for what might constitute more credible information.
Based on this experience, I believe there’s educational value in engaging learners with Wikipedia information marked incomplete or in need of revision. These articles may provide learners a concrete inroad – a scaffold – for understanding Wikipedia’s imprecision, and more generally, for learning about how to comprehend material that may (or more likely, may not) be accompanied by a preexisting credibility judgement.
In this use, scaffolding is a structure that facilitates a learner’s interaction with material so as to present an easy entry point that may lead to more sophisticated interaction over time and experience. The scaffolds are largely visual (warning boxes) and psychological (the warning boxes make it clear that someone – a Wikipedia editor – has already identified issues in the content).
I believe that by building a learning experience atop these scaffolds, we can help learners sharpen their sense and sensitivity to the nuances of credibility in Wikipedia content, and potentially in web content more generally.
Critical content evaluation is an essential skill for web readers to possess. Web-based content is typically of unspecified authorship, dubious quality and unknown bias. Content consumers must make rapid judgements about quality, bias, credibility and utility dimensions in deciding whether to utilize or reject information. Wikipedia content provides a substantial information platform to many web users each day – perhaps one of the largest single information sources in the world.
However, Wikipedia articles are of variable quality and consistency. Some are of low overall quality; others are of high quality, but contain sections of low quality. Of all possible low quality articles, only a small number are marked as such. Given the reliance that young people have on Wikipedia for gleaning information, critical evaluation is an important skill to teach.
Therefore, it’s essential that students become critical readers of Wikipedia content. Not only should students develop the knowledge that Wikipedia articles could be inexact; we can help them develop an understanding how to spot inexactness, give them tools for reconciling uncertainty and ultimately, empower stronger Wikipedia reading literacy.
The following lesson provides an idea for how a teacher might introduce learners to evaluating credibility on Wikipedia, and expand the conversation to think about how to evaluate claims and biases on web pages more generally.
It can easily be modified to fit contexts with a single computer and project (using printouts, for example) or contexts with a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio.
Open online: Lesson Document via Google Docs