Can Wikipedia Be An Educational Tool?

Wikipedia as a tool

Wikipedia is well known to students and therefore used very often for their school work. Their lack of perspective, even critical thinking, is often regretted by teachers. The research presented in this article, however, highlights the educational value of the collaborative approach of the encyclopedia, as students support the writing protocols it requires. The production of articles then leads them to question and assume the responsibility for validation in a real communication situation.

Wikipedia is an important source of information, even systematic, for young people as part of their academic work. Wikipedia is indeed one of the first results displayed by search engines following a request on a proper name, a theoretical concept or a historical event … It is also an easily identifiable resource for students, a documentary object in editorial form stable in the Internet user landscape. Based on the functioning of the wiki, the articles are all organized in the same way, their title corresponding to the exposed content, offering a structured entry into the information.

Its use in a pedagogical framework still raises many questions: the source of information can be difficult to verify and this requires, above all, expert skills of evaluation of information. In addition, the very pronounced positions taken, the frank prohibitions or the introduction of voluntary errors are controversial points, very present in the debate on the issue of school uses of Wikipedia. However, there is a third way that reflects Wikipedia’s use as a teaching tool, taking into account the heterogeneity of students’ practices and their possible structuring through constructed learning.

Operation by strata

Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is a nonprofit web document, encyclopedic in that it aims to cover a range of notable topics, and based on wiki technology authorizing collective writing. The term “wiki” refers to a mode of publication on the Internet allowing immediate and simultaneous modification of pages by readers, without the installation of dedicated software or specific permissions.

We can distinguish four main layers of data constituting an article of Wikipedia, locatable online in the form of tabs: the article itself (title, summary, body, iconography, related articles and external links); a “Discussion” page devoted to debates about contributions; an “Edit” page allowing the user to integrate his own contributions and changes; a “History” page gathering all the contributions. Wikipedia itself presents several documentary strata, the pages of the encyclopedia being accompanied by pages by determining the criteria of writing: verifiability (the published elements must be able to be verified in external sources), no data from searches not yet published and neutrality of point of view.

Writing from sources

A Finnish study focusing on the use by primary school students of primary sources (first-hand documents used for writing articles) first describes the aspects that make Wikipedia an academic writing medium: young people know the encyclopedia but need a critical light on its informational value, the exposure of knowledge and sources are traceable there, the collaborative writing tends to increase the quality of the written productions by the taking into account of the comments Wikipedia page writing rules can be compared to peer review for scientific articles.

As part of this study, 11 groups of high school students (17-18 years old) had to write an article on Wikipedia in geography or biology. Their productions (11 articles in total) have been segmented into “content units” and classified according to 5 categories related to the degree of elaboration of the text:

  • Copy-pasted (or literal quotation)
  • almost copy-pasted (reformulation) least of the source text)
  • paraphrase (reformulation in simple terms of the source text arguments)
  • Summary of a single source
  • Synthesis from several sources

The most common categories among the sentences written were paraphrase (36% of units), copy-paste (30%), a summary of a single source (15%) and synthesis (15%). The results indicate that the sources used by students are almost all of the web documents (mostly institutional sites). More precisely, the copy-paste as such is estimated on average at 30% of non-cited sources (next to 15% for the summary of a single source, 15% of synthesis, and 36% of paraphrase).

The authors indicate that the copied and pasted pure and simple is the fact of students who fly over the sources or do not master the requirements of the documentary synthesis. The method used by the authors is presented as an effective typological approach for working reformulation skills from source traceability in Wikipedia. Other experiments of this type are planned to establish validity.

A life-size communication situation

When the contribution to Wikipedia is considered as a school production, students are led to take into account the audience of the encyclopedia. It allows writing rooted in a real communication situation, which does not stop with the delivery of the productions by the students to their teacher. It can be productive to use the motivational interest of the Wikipedia audience and to include the writing exercise in the academic process. This is what Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman, professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, offer. These two researchers question the impact of collaborative writing and the consideration of the audience on the quality of written productions. They assessed the impact of

  • Collaborative research
  • Evaluation of the sources
  • A composition of a first draft
  • Evaluation of the first version of the other students
  • Modifications and final version of the article

A group of 42 students at the beginning of university courses participated in the experiment. The analysis of students’ online activity (publications, modifications, comments, taking into account the comments of peers to make a modification …) shows that 80% of them have reviewed and improved the quality of their production following comments from other users.

In addition, interviews with a sub-group of students at several points in the project show the important role of Internet users’ comments in changing individual strategies. The students understood that their work would be read by others but did not necessarily represent the fact that their publications on the Internet would be public. However, faced with a real audience, they have adopted various strategies to clearly present their ideas, sometimes defend them, and choose their sources.

The respect of strict writing codes

Contributing to Wikipedia is not just writing and publishing online. Wikipedia is the product of a community that responds to specific rules of writing and rewriting. Elizabeth Ann Pollard, a professor of history at the University of San Diego, reports on a study to include the contribution to Wikipedia in academic work and evaluation.

She insists on the search for preliminary information and the presentation of historiographical arguments. As part of a project called “History 400W”, students identified a relevant or missing entry related to the history of witchcraft in Wikipedia. They then carried out a search for information, validated their sources, determined the problematic points of the subject, wrote an article that was neutral in point of view and actively contributed to the article’s discussion page.

The teacher was able to follow the evolution of the writing task online and collect several types of data: online contributions (article and discussion pages) and class work presentations qualified student participation to the writing task; individual interviews and a survey helped to assess their personal experience. The results show that the respect of the rules of writing imposed by Wikipedia and the academic work in history has been demanding. As such, the author notes an awareness by the majority of students of the need to validate their sources and cross the information.


To consult Wikipedia can give the impression to the user that he experiments a certain facility because the articles are structured according to a homogeneous and readable grid.

However, the rules for producing articles in Wikipedia are relatively complex. As such, it is essential to have students or students manipulate the rules that underlie the technical and editorial functioning of such a device. This is to make them understand that they are dealing with knowledge building.

All disciplines combined, Wikipedia can as such allow working skills in information retrieval and reading/writing. Student work can be corrected by other contributors and then takes on a real communication dimension. The teacher can follow the progress of students’ writing and thus work on the writing process and not only evaluate a final production. These tracks propose to work on writing and building knowledge. They can probably help to train students to read Wikipedia but this is a very different project.