Wikipedia is good for pupils and teachers

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Unfair that some authorities limit access to online encyclopaedia, says learning guru

Scotland's games-based learning guru Ollie Bray has challenged the orthodoxy that teachers should shun Wikipedia as a reference source in the classroom.

Mr Bray, depute head of Musselburgh Grammar, who is currently seconded to Learning and Teaching Scotland as national adviser for emerging technologies in learning, argues not only that pupils be allowed access to it in their lessons, but that teachers use it to show pupils how to evaluate the reliability and credibility of information.

Speaking at this year's conference of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, he said teaching pupils to use and evaluate articles on the online encyclopaedia, written and edited by millions of users globally, fitted with Level 3 literacy outcomes in A Curriculum for Excel lence. These require pupils to look at techniques in assessing sources and reliability of information.

Although many teachers and academics criticise Wikipedia for lacking reliability and accuracy, and favouring consensus over credentials in its editorial process, Mr Bray claims teachers can't stop pupils using it at home, so it is better to teach them to use it responsibly.

Wikipedia flags up entries which contradict each other, he says. "We, as teachers, should be looking at these disclaimers and working with young people to discuss why articles are disputed or contradict themselves. If we start with the belief that everything is subject to opinion, then we can work on how to validate it."

He suggests teachers and pupils study the "discussion", "source" and "history" tabs on the website. The discussion area will show pupils the extent of debate that goes on to find compromise in a disputed area, while the editing tab will allow them to contribute to the discussion and increase their knowledge.

Teaching how to use Wikipedia should fall into the same category as internet safety and responsible use of technology, says Mr Bray. When people talk about "inappropriate content" on the web, it's about sexual or racist content, but it should also include biased information, he believes. "There is extreme content on the internet, but kids only find it because they go looking for it."

Teachers should be teaching pupils how to validate where knowledge comes from, says Mr Bray.

Pupils should also be entitled to use sites such as YouTube, he argues, but the picture is "very mixed" when it comes to allowing teachers and pupils to access them. His authority, East Lothian Council, has unblocked YouTube access for teachers and pupils, he says; some authorities block it for both, some for pupils only, and others allow staff to view it after 4pm.

A debate is necessary, he argues, about which approach is right.

Economic factors are also involved, he says: "Why is it fair that children in East Lothian can get access to hundreds of hours on Channel 4, National Geographic or the Scottish Parliament, when other schools and teachers have not got access to these resources?

"It means that children don't get to benefit from it, or the teacher or head has to spend a lot of time copying the resources, or the department has to spend time procuring resources which are available for free."

- Ollie Bray came second in the community section of Microsoft's fifth Annual Worldwide Innovative Education Forum Awards, in Brazil, for his project on using computer games to improve the learning and social interaction of children as they move from primary to secondary.

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