Wikipedia as Scene of Writing, pt. 2

When introducing the concept of Web 2.0 to my students, two terms always come into play in our conversation – “digital native” and “digital immigrant.” The generational dividing line between these two groups is a bit elusive – some associate “digital natives” with the millennials (those born 1980 or after), while others set the date at around 1990. In essence, a “digital native” is inherently internet savvy – one who sees Web 2.0 technologies as always having been there for them. They are comfortable navigating search engine and have not know a time when websites, like Wikipedia, were not available for them to access information. Conversely, “digital immigrants” are those who, while not necessarily unfamiliar with Web 2.0 technology, were born before the widespread use of digital media. For “digital immigrants,” Web 2.0 technologies may not seem as intuitive as they do for “digital natives.”

Along with this intuitiveness comes a lack of critical questioning on the part of digital natives regarding online sources. A 2010 study conducted at Northwestern University posed the question of what cues do undergraduate students use in determining the credibility of material found online. Surveying 1,060 students and then conducting interviews and direct observations with 102 students, the researchers found that the criteria used to assess credibility was the ranking in branded search engines, such as Google: “We find evidence of users’ trust in search engines with respect to the credibility of information they find when using these services. To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step. When using a search engine, many students clicked on the first search result. Over a quarter of respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services ” (479). (I do enjoy explaining to my students how Google’s ranking are not based on credibility ( a subjective measurement) but rather number of visits (a objective measurement).)

When it comes to Wikipedia, how an article is created, maintained, and edited is generally a mystery to students. Back in 2011, Tushar Rae had a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed  on how students are generally ill-informed about Wikipedia. Based on a study, entitled ““Young Adults’ Credibility Assessment of Wikipedia,” that Rae cites, most students’ understanding of Wikipedia comes from teachers’ and professors’ warning against the site rather than information available on the site itself. Most students’ experience of Wikipedia is limited to to just retrieving some general knowledge about a subject. (But let’s be honest, that is the majority of visitors to Wikipedia.)

I take my students’ lack of or limited understanding of how the community of Wikipedia functions as the starting point for our discussion. Based on this I open our conversation about Wikipedia with a compare-contrast exercise. I divide my students into groups and distribute to each group a xeroxed copy of the entry on Darwinism from The Encyclopedia Britannica. Then I ask students to go to Wikipedia and find the corresponding entry for Darwinism. The task for my students is to contrast both these entries for how the information is presented to them. (I give them a brief explanation about the difference between content (the information that each entry offers) and form (the presentation of the knowledge).) After while, we come back together to generate a class list of differences they noticed.

Encyclopedia Britannica






WP Darwinism

This exercise serves multiple purposes. First, it allows students to explore a Wikipedia page, becoming aware of the “Talk” section, “History” page, and all of the languages the article is available in. Second, and more importantly, the list acts as a leaping-off point for discussing how each source of information places users in different roles. That is, two of the questions that I ask students are (1) what’s your job when it comes to The Encyclopedia Britannica and (2) how’s this different from what Wikipedia asks of you. My goal here is to introduce students to the concepts of centralized and de-centralized forms of knowledge gathering. We talk about how power is concentrated among a few when it comes The Encyclopedia Britannica, while power is dispersed among all users (ideally speaking) on WikipediaA hypothetical that I pose students is for The Encyclopedia Britannica who determines how long the entry on Jesus Christ is versus how long the entry on Muhammad is and then who gets to make that decision on Wikipedia. Since most students already come to class with a prejudice against Wikipedia, I try to suggest the ethical concerns that The Encyclopedia Britannica offers when it comes to who can and cannot take part in knowledge production. (A great essay that piggybacks on my students and my conversation is Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision.”)

Here’s a pdf of Mangue-Ward’s article:Mangu-Ward__Wikipedia_and_Beyond

So next week’s post I will devote to explaining the first writing assignment of the Wikipedia project. If you have any feedback to about this lesson, I would love to hear from you!




About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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1 Response to Wikipedia as Scene of Writing, pt. 2

  1. Anu Gupta says:

    It’s a really great topic. What makes a piece of writing “authoritative”? Why was Brittanica Authoritative over say.. other encyclopedias? Was it commerce – meaning, the product was so good and marketed so well that it became the defacto source of information because it was, wait for it… accessible? In journals, the authoritativeness can be tied to the number of times a document is cited, as well as the age of the document. If you’re still referring to it today as a source document, it means that it’s stood the test of time – and I bet that it’s been cited more than other documents. To that extent, perhaps google’s objective measure of click-throughs perhaps isn’t all that bad. Certainly one doesn’t just pick the first five links to cite when conducting research – and if they do, it’s a summary paper at best – in which case that’s probably all you need.

    But I do agree with you, there’s a measure of critical thinking that’s lost when simply looking up resources on the net. The student is absolutely obligated to dig a little deeper and find a wide variety of sources that can corroborate the information found. It also happens to be helpful to get different perspective.

    Great article Ton.

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