Happy Birthday Wikipedia!

Wikipedia is seven years of old today. While Wikipedia may be a controversial topic for educators, no one can say that it hasn’t changed the face of the web.

For educators, the rise of Wikipedia reinforces the importance of information literacy. Some schools ban while some have students contribute to Wikipedia and defend their words in public. Who is right?

Wikipedia challenges the idea that the textbook (or the teacher) is the ultimate source of facts. For some teachers this is terrifying, or represents sloppy standards and lazy research.

For other teachers it is reinforcement of lessons they’ve been teaching for years. Students need to know how to research multiple sources, learn how to evaluate conflicting information and opinions, and integrate these into their own understanding.

The discussion pages attached to each Wikipedia entry are equally instructive. They are alternately a celebration of a consensual community process, as conflicting but equally rational viewpoints are battled out in public — or bullying, in-crowd harangues that make you want to take a long hot shower. However you feel about it, the fact that Wikipedia’s projects span over 250 languages, with 9.4 million articles, 1.5 million images, and 10.3 million registered users is pretty amazing. The power of the global village is just starting to be felt.

The most popular Wikipedia pages shows a crazy mix of pop culture, video games, celebrities, notorious historical figures, and sex. By the way, Wikipedia does not censor for sexual content, but strives for objectivity in articles and definitions. Seriously, don’t click on the “sex” article with anyone looking over your shoulder. But the question for educators is always how to balance safety with authentic experiences — to pre-chew content for students or let them investigate the messy real world and learn to make good decisions for themselves.

We may not have final answers for these questions now. What we do know is that in just a few short years, K-12 students will not remember a world without Wikipedia or Google. We owe it to them to keep trying to wrap our heads around this brave new world.

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