Archaeology, Wikipedia, and the Classroom

Posted on August 10, 2014


This week I have been posting on why archaeologists should embrace Wikipedia (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), my experience with Wikiclub, and how you can get started editing Wikipedia. An obvious intersection between Wikipedia and Archaeology is the classroom. Luckily, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel as Robert Connolly has already blogged about the topic. Robert gave a hint of his work in the #BlogArch blogging carnival I ran a few months ago. He re-posted a portion of a profile of himself. The first section discussed blogging but then went on to say:

Connolly acknowledges that reading and writing blogs can be a huge time drain and produce little. But ultimately, he sees a bright future for such user-generated content. This semester he is teaching an Undergraduate Honors Forum titled “Wikipedia as a Research Tool.” Like blogs, he is convinced that Wikipedia has a place in academia. “In my Museum Practices graduate seminar, we spend about 45 minutes of one class period discussing the ethics of repatriation using the Elgin Marbles as a case study. I had been using a brief chapter from an archaeological text as background reading for the students. A couple of years ago, I went to the Wikipedia page for the Elgin Marbles. I found a balanced and up-to-date 5000-word article with over 100 references that approached the discussion from multiple perspectives. I realized that for the purposes of a single class case study discussion, I knew of no better single resource than the Wikipedia entry.”

Connolly notes that the aspect of Wikipedia that most surprises the students in his current Honors Forum is the rigorous editing and referencing process in creating Wikipedia pages. “One aspect of user-generated content that I enjoy the most is the need for critical assessment of the printed word. We did an exercise on the first day of class this fall where the students were able to see that the Wikipedia entry on a particular topic was actually better researched and more reliable than a report on the same topic in the Smithsonian Institutions Contributions to Anthropology. We continue to move in a direction where the venue of presentation does not always determine the worth of the written word, rather the scholarship on which the text is based. Blogs and other forms of user-generated content clearly have a place in that discussion.”

A week after posting that #blogarch answer he launched his first post on Wikipedia and the classroom, drawing on his experiences from teaching the class ‘Wikipedia as a Research Tool’. Robert links to all the resources you could possibly want on the topic of using Wikipedia in the classroom. A real interesting piece of work he discussed was the word-clouds of students perceptions of Wikipedia. This one is from before the course:

There is great contrast with students thoughts after the course:

You should go and read that post.

This was followed on by a post on what the students learned and thought. If you are wondering if you should work with Wikipedia for a class this will help answer that question. Also, check it to see what (mis)conceptions others have of Wikipedia and if you have the same ones. There are some great quotes there and two of my favorites are:

“At one point my middle school librarian said that Wikipedia was the devil. As a result, after all these years of being told that Wikipedia was an unreliable resource and that I was not allowed to use it, I just automatically thought that Wikipedia was not reliable.  Learning about how the website is run and that most of the “employees” are in fact volunteers gave me a better insight on the integrity of the website and the people who run it.”

“The most important insight that I gained from this class is a confirmation of what Wikipedia is actually about. I always knew it was an encyclopedia but most people used it differently. Wikipedia is not a research tool, or a source shopping list, and even though it can be used in those ways, what Wikipedia is really about is being an online encyclopedia. It is simply an online “book” of facts, and these facts are then used to inform people. I do not think that Wikipedia ever had the intention or wanted to become acceptable as a citable source.”

Finally, Robert does a great review of what did and did not work for the class. If you are considering exploring Wikipedia in the classroom read that post. I would say it has nuggets of gold but really it is more a gold mine of info:

“I am strong proponent of open authority and user-generated content.  Throughout the course, I consistently emphasized that Wikipedia was only being used as an example to examine user-generated content.  Throughout the course for every Jimmy Wales video promoting Wikipedia, we watched a second video that presented a counter perspective.  Ditto for readings.  For example, a third question on the students final exam was to assess Tom Simonite’s The Decline of Wikipedia recently published in the MIT Technology Review.  Given the brevity of the class, I did not include readings or videos that might be termed more as rants or diatribes such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.  However, given today’s polarized sociopolitical climate on almost every issue, there is an apparent need to expand student exposure to these more extreme positions and I will do so in the future.”

Like I said, no point in reinventing the wheel. Go read Robert’s posts to get insights into the why and how of using Wikipedia in the classroom.

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