How to catch the copy-and-paste culprits

26th July 2013 at 01:00
Read Wikipedia to help you spot plagiarism, founder urges

The Wikipedia website has revolutionised the way that people around the world access information. With more than 30 million articles in 286 languages, it has aided many a last-minute essay.

But teachers, as well as students, should be combing the site to make sure that young people are not simply regurgitating the information it holds, according to its co-founder, Jimmy Wales.

In an exclusive interview with TES, Mr Wales said it is up to teachers to know what his website contains. "They need to say: 'Well, look, I can't just assume I'm going to hand the kids this novel and they have no other sources of information about it. Instead, I need to know what's in Wikipedia and warn them there will be questions they won't be able to answer from reading Wikipedia,' " he said. "I think we've always had the problem of students being lazy. I was a very lazy student. I get it."

Wikipedia has been criticised for encouraging students to plagiarise, but Mr Wales insisted that this is not a new phenomenon. "When I was a kid, that's what (Encyclopaedia) Britannica was for," he said. "The problem is older than the internet. The other thing I would say is teachers should remind their students, 'We read Wikipedia, too, so we're going to notice it if you copy.'

"I do think that we should be teaching students how to use Wikipedia - what is its appropriate role? If you just go and read the entry about a novel instead of reading the novel, that's clearly not optimal; that's not the right thing to be doing."

Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has become the most popular general reference website on the internet, with an estimated 365 million users across the globe. Inevitably, for a website written and edited by its users, it has gained a degree of notoriety for factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations. In 2010, England's exams watchdog, Ofqual, warned students that its content could be, at worst, "completely untrue".

The website says that its aim is "not to do people's homework for them, but to merely aid them in doing it themselves".

Speaking to TES, Mr Wales argued that the availability of vast amounts of online information at the click of a mouse has changed education and removed the need for rote learning.

Forcing students to learn facts and figures by heart leads to "dull and pointless" lessons, he said. "The purpose of education is to prepare people for adult life," he added. "Clearly, memorising lists of kings and queens isn't a particularly marketable skill.

"You do need to know and understand the broad sweep of history. On the other hand, knowing roughly where things fit in is very different from having to literally memorise dates, and that sort of objective becomes elevated into a goal in itself. That's where I think you can go too far in that direction, so that education becomes dull and pointless."

Speaking at the Accelerate 2013 business festival in Liverpool last month, Mr Wales also called for more lessons to be filmed so that the best teachers' classes could be shared with young people across the world.

"We've got to utilise technology to take our best teachers and give students better access to them," he said. "Certainly, video can play a very powerful role.

"I can imagine an incredibly well done 40-hour series on the Industrial Revolution that would include some lecture components but also some real documentary film-making ... going out to visit and seeing looms and talking to historians.

"Why shouldn't we be doing that, so students really have an opportunity to not just sit in a classroom with a teacher but, on top of that, have a richer, deeper experience?"


Jimmy Wales' own education was somewhat unorthodox. He attended a small private school run by his mother and grandmother. There were just four children in each grade, and different year groups were all taught in the same room.

"It was like Abraham Lincoln's one-room schoolhouse," he said. "That was interesting, having different grade children in one room. You could go ahead and race forward in some subjects. It allowed for a different, not so rigid, educational environment."

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