Thursday, April 5, 2012

From expert to anyone: the shift from encyclopedia to Wikipedia, and how it affects education

Assignment 3 – Question 3

When Encyclopedia Britannica announced in March that it would no longer produce a print version, the organization promised in a blog post that the encyclopedia would live on, in “more vibrant digital forms,” including its Digital Learning products (Encyclopedia Britannica, March, 2012, para. 6). Britannica has been in business since 1768 and, in its own words, “combines today’s current topics with nearly 250 years of expertise and delivers the depth, breadth, and information that . . . readers have relied on for centuries” (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d., para. 8). A subscription to Britannica Online Premium service is $69.95 per year.

In contrast, Wikipedia is offered to readers for free and, more significantly, is created by readers, who may or may not include the “Nobel laureates, historians, curators, professors, and other notable experts” that Encyclopedia Britannica relies on for content (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d., para. 5). It is this defining feature—user participation—which has led to many an educator’s unease with Wikipedia. At the same time, user participation opens on to a panorama of educational opportunities.

The nature of Wikipedia

While Wikipedia is commonly credited with the downfall of the print-based encyclopedia, Anderson (2009) argued that Microsoft was responsible for demonetizing the entire encyclopedia industry through packaging its Encarta product with Windows PCs during the 1990s (p. 130). The introduction of $99 Encarta meant that “once you had a PC in the living room or den where the encyclopedia used to be, it was all over for Mighty Britannica” (Carmody, 2012, para. 12).

Wikipedia had not yet been imagined when Encarta was introduced in 1993. It was not until Nupedia, a free, expert-written, online encyclopedia had failed to thrive that its creators shifted direction and embraced the “radical openness” which gave life to Wikipedia (Reagle, 2010, p. 40).

In comparison to traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia does indeed appear radically open. The English language Wikipedia lists more than 758,000 editors (Wikipedia Statistics, n.d.), who work for no remuneration. No qualifications are required to enter the community as an editor, who may work under a user name or anonymously. An editor may contribute entire articles or single copy edits. There is no editorial board overseeing content creation; editorial decisions are made by the community. Wikipedia fits Benkler and Nissenbaum’s (2006) “commons-based peer production” model as its production is modular, incremental, and granular, and offers low-cost integration (p. 401).

While “anyone can edit,” Wikipedians are guided by an array of policies and guidelines, including the key requirements of “neutral point of view,” “no orginal research,” and “verifiability” (Wikipedia:Five Pillars, n.d.).

Unease with Wikipedia

By definition, products of the commons-based peer production model are not created by experts. While the model has proven itself successful in creating open source software, unease about a peer-produced encyclopedia remains. This unease has been visible in the realm of education, where a shift in the way knowledge is created, shared, and accessed means a shift in the way teachers and students work together.

At the heart of the unease with Wikipedia are questions about authority and reliability. McHenry (2004), former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, famously likened Wikipedia to a public restroom, where “one does not know . . . who has used the facilities before him” (last para.). Keen (2007), argued that “Wikipedia claims to be amassing the world’s largest real estate of knowledge, and yet Wikipedia’s readers seem to revel in its very lack of authority” (p. 40).

Reagle (2010), in a discussion about historical shifts in authority, control of knowledge, and knowledge creation, contended that, “the larger anxiety that Wikipedia has triggered is clear, and like that of its predecessors it reflects a broader concern about authority” (p. 152).

The response of some school districts and universities to Wikipedia-related plagiarism and other misuses may reflect the sort of anxiety that Reagle referred to. In some instances during 2007 and 2008, bans on the use of Wikipedia were imposed in response to perceived over-reliance on Wikipedia as a resource (e.g. Olanoff, 2007; Glazowski, 2008).

Since that time, as collaborative online platforms have become more widely accepted and understood as educational tools, many educators have moved away from viewing Wikipedia as little more than an unreliable distraction that threatens the development of proper research skills. Wikipedia has now become seen as “both symbol and agent of a new culture of information consumption, including its production, usage and retrieval” (Luyt et al., 2010, p. 57). As the inherently fluid nature of Wikipedia has become understood, educators are beginning to take advantage of its unique collaborative platform to help students develop critical thinking, writing, and editing skills.

Wikipedia and educational opportunity

Wikipedia, because of its collaboratively-built, consensus-driven editorial process, represents knowledge in a different way than do traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia articles may represent the view of a single editor, or may represent the views of many. The most widely accepted view may not prevail in Wikipedia articles, as the “neutral point of view” policy allows for the expression of minority views which might not find a place in traditional encyclopedias. A Wikipedia article is also highly subject to change, with particular views becoming more or less prevalent as it evolves. Bruns (2009) notes that traditional encyclopedias “present an edited synthesis of available knowledge . . . and attempt to distill a presentation of ‘the truth’,” while Wikipedia “offers for the user’s own evaluation the various representations of knowledge currently in wider circulation” (p. 132).

The onus placed on the reader to evaluate a Wikipedia article’s representation of knowledge offers a number of opportunities for critical thinking exercises. As an example, an assignment requiring students to evaluate a Wikipedia article on the basis of verifiability would challenge students to consider the references chosen by the Wikipedia editors involved in creating the article, and to consider what other references would be suitable. Similarly, students could be tasked with evaluating whether an article meets the “neutral point of view” standard espoused by Wikipedia, or evaluating how an article has evolved and whether it is improving or being weakened by continuous editing. Through this kind of exercise, students are able to engage much more deeply with encyclopedic material than they would be if using a traditional encyclopedia with a “fixed” representation of knowledge.

Beyond evaluating articles on Wikipedia, many educators are now involving students in creating and editing articles. This kind of work involves the “educational benefits of a traditional research assignment” with the development of “new media literacy skills . . . [and] what it means to collaborate online”, as well as the sense of “contributing to the advance of public knowledge” (Trujillo, 2011, sect. 7).

Because Wikipedia’s breadth is not limited by shelf space or cost of production, it “can harness the enthusiasm of participants with deep knowledge in topical areas whose inclusion in a conventional encyclopedia might be considered frivolous” (Bruns, 2009, p. 122). This potential for development of deep knowledge in a less-travelled topic may present an opportunity for students who are uninspired by traditional academic subjects but are passionate about topics such as gaming or pop culture. The task of creating a Wikipedia article on almost any topic of a student’s choosing can provide an opportunity to develop a range of literacy skills.

Involvement in the Wikipedia community also offers opportunity for observation of a community in action, as an exhaustive record of all discussion regarding articles, policies, and guidelines is maintained on the discussion pages which accompany each page. Shirky (2008) pointed out that: “Wikipedia is the product not of collectivism but of unending argumentation; the corpus grows not from harmonious thought but from constant scrutiny and emendation” (p. 151). Given the constant debate, revising, and reverting that occurs in Wikipedia, consensus building and dispute resolution are essential functions. These functions both echo and depart from the way they are handled in other kinds of communities, and are one example of the many aspects of collaborative communities that can be studied and reflected on.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that oversees Wikipedia, now offers a number of resources through the Wikipedia Education Program for educators who hope to engage their students in work on Wikipedia. Besides offering instructional pages as “Best practices in assigning Wikipedia articles as coursework to students” (Wikimedia Outreach, n.d.), Wikimedia also supports an Ambassador program to help new editors find their way through the interface.

In closing

Few students now see traditional encyclopedias as their starting place for research; Wikipedia is the new first stop. Unlike the encyclopedias it is replacing, Wikipedia does not represent an authoritative and distilled version of knowledge about a topic. Rather, it represents multiple points of view, in a fluid and shifting frame. Reliability is not a given, and the onus is on readers to use the resource with a critical eye. The onus is on educators not to shield students from Wikipedia but to help them understand and engage meaningfully with it.


Anderson, C. (2009). De-Monetization. In Free: the Future of a Radical Price (pp. 119-133). New York: Hyperion.

Benkler, Y. & Nissenbaum, H. (2006). Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue. The Journal of Political Philosophy. Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 394-419.

Bruns, A. (2009). Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Carmody, T. (2012). Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica. Windows Did. Wired. Retrieved from:

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Glazowski, P. (2008). University of Brighton Professor Places Ban on Google and Wikipedia. Mashable, January 13, 2008. Retrieved from:

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Luyt, B., Ally, Y., Low, N. & Ismail, N. (2010). Librarian Perception of Wikipedia: Threats or Opportunities for Librarianship? Libri, Vol 60, pp. 57-64. DOI 10.1515/libr.2010.005. Retrieved from:

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Olanoff, L. (2007). School officials unite in banning Wikipedia. The Seattle Times, November 21, 2007. Retrieved from:

Reagle, J. (2010). Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia. MIT Press.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin.

Trujillo, M. (2011). Wikipedia and Higher Education—The Infinite Possibilities. Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, UBC. Retrieved from:

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1 comment:

  1. Linda - thanks for this review and the focus on education. As a teacher, I take the approach that Wikipedia can be used, but it should not be the sole source of information.

    The thread I am picking up from these latest discussions, the response of Lawrence Lessig in Jess' posting, and Bobbi's view of transliteracy, is the need for even more critical thought and assessment across all media.

    We have been spoon fed information in our past and have likely become too complacent in accepting the experts who have been responsible for distributing it. We need to be much more cynical perhaps, or at least cautious, about how we receive communication in a web 2.0 world. I would argue that's an important transliteracy skill.