Open and Transparent Consensus: a snapshot of teachers’ use of Wikipedia
Dr Albin Wallace
Introduction The title of this paper (Open and Transparent Consensus) is derived from Wikipedia’s own description of itself, and reflects its philosophy and approach to collaborative knowledge production and use. Wikipedia is a popular, multi-lingual, web-based, free-content encyclopaedia and is the most well-known of wikis, collaborative websites that can be directly edited by anyone with access to them. Many teachers and students have experience with Wikipedia, and in this survey teachers were asked how Wiki-based practices might contribute to teaching and learning. This survey was conducted in England with 133 teachers from a wide range of schools, who have used Wikipedia in some way. The survey was anonymous to protect individuals’ and schools’ privacy; there was no way of identifying individual responses. The survey was conducted online and respondents were encouraged to be as open and honest as possible. Participation in this survey was entirely voluntary. Many of the questions are based upon descriptions by Wikipedia about itself and these are intended to elicit responses from teachers that reflect how closely their usage relates to the original intention and philosophy of the encyclopaedia. Other questions are intended to probe different ways in which teachers use the website.
Presentation and analysis of data
What gender are you? Female 77 58% Male 56 42% Total 133 100% Although there were an equal number of male and female teachers invited to participate in the survey (100 of each), the actual percentage of female respondents was 58%. 2 2. What subjects do you teach (please tick all that apply)? Art and design 8 6% Citizenship 6 5% Design and technology 13 10% English 31 23% Geography 14 11% History 9 7% Information and communication technology 16 12% Mathematics 16 12% Modern foreign languages 14 11% Music 5 4% Physical education 11 8% Personal, social, health and economic education 15 11% Religious education 12 9% Science 33 25% Other 28 21% A fairly broad range of subjects were represented in the sample with the highest number of respondents coming from English and Science faculties. This does not necessarily indicate a greater percentage response rate from those faculties as the numbers of invited respondents were not evenly distributed across all the subject areas. It was therefore expected that there would be a sample bias towards subjects such as English, Science, Mathematics and ICT. 3. What Key Stages do you teach (please tick all that apply)? Key Stage 1 10 8% Key Stage 2 27 21% Key Stage 3 104 79% Key Stage 4 107 82% Key Stage 5 83 63% Although there was some representation from primary school teachers (Key Stage 1 and 2), the greater number of respondents came from Key Stage 3-5. This clearly biases the sample towards secondary school teachers. 3 4. Have you ever written a Wikipedia article? Yes 7 5% No 125 95% Total 132 100% Only a very small proportion of teachers surveyed had written a Wikipedia article, indicating that they tended to be consumers rather than producers of information for the website. Of the few that wrote articles, most tended to be Science teachers. 5. Have you ever edited a Wikipedia article? Yes 15 11% No 116 89% Total 131 100% Twice as many teachers had edited rather than produced an article for Wikipedia indicating a higher critical engagement with the content on the website. From all the teachers surveyed, Science, ICT, History and Geography teachers were most likely to edit articles. 6. When using Wikipedia, do you tend to: Always Often Sometimes Rarely Never View random articles? 2 7 29 52 31 2% 6% 24% 43% 26% View featured articles? 2 19 32 32 37 2% 16% 26% 26% 30% View topic areas? 15 39 37 19 16 12% 31% 29% 15% 13% Use the search box? 55 42 22 6 4 43% 33% 17% 5% 3% Teachers tended to view random articles rarely, preferring to use the search box to find specific information. Featured articles were quite popular as was the use of topic areas. Those who tended to view random articles most frequently were Modern 4 Foreign Language teachers. Geography teachers were the most frequent viewers of featured articles with Music and Geography teachers most frequently viewing topic areas. 7. Do you use Wikipedia in languages other than English? Yes 18 14% No 114 86% Total 132 100% Although, unsurprisingly most teachers used Wikipedia in English some did use the website in other languages. Modern Foreign Languages, Science and Art teachers made most use of Wikipedia in languages other than English. 8. When using Wikipedia, how often would you agree with the following words as descriptors for information found? Always Often Sometim es Rarely Never Balanced 7 79 47 0 0 5% 59% 35% 0% 0% Neutral 7 72 48 3 0 5% 55% 37% 2% 0% Encyclopaedic 18 72 33 6 1 14% 55% 25% 5% 1% Comprehensive 18 58 47 7 1 14% 44% 36% 5% 1% Notable 9 40 61 14 1 7% 32% 49% 11% 1% Verifiable 8 52 50 17 3 6% 40% 38% 13% 2% Accurate 8 78 38 6 0 6% 60% 29% 5% 0% Reliable 6 76 39 8 1 5% 58% 30% 6% 1% Respondents found the articles in Wikipedia to be generally balanced, neutral, encyclopaedic, comprehensive, reliable and accurate. They were slightly less inclined to view the articles as being notable or verifiable with less than half of respondents agreeing that articles were always or often either notable or verifiable. 5 Those teachers who reported Wikipedia as being less balanced were teachers of Art, Citizenship, Design and Technology, Geography, ICT and Mathematics. 10. How important are the following factors in using information found on Wikipedia? Very important Somewhat important Neither important nor unimportant Unimportant Irrelevant Neutrality of point of view 42 63 22 0 1 33% 49% 17% 0% 1% Originality of research 17 45 49 10 7 13% 35% 38% 8% 5% Verification of content against external sources 65 46 14 2 2 50% 36% 11% 2% 2% Reliability of sources 86 36 7 0 1 66% 28% 5% 0% 1% Citation of sources 50 57 18 3 0 39% 45% 14% 2% 0% Most respondents rating neutrality of point of view as being an important factor in using information found on Wikipedia. Likewise, verification of content against external sources, reliability and citation of resources were usually seen as being somewhat or very important. Originality was seen as being a less important factor. Those who greatest concern about the neutrality of articles were teachers of Art, Citizenship, Design and Technology, Geography, Mathematics, Modern Foreign Languages and Science 11. Have you ever posted feedback on Wikipedia? Yes 6 5% No 125 95% Total 131 100% Very few respondents ever posted feedback on Wikipedia. 6 12. Do you believe that student access to Wikipedia at school should be blocked? Yes 10 8% No 121 92% Total 131 100% Most respondents believed that access to Wikipedia should not be blocked within school. 13. Do you believe that Wikipedia should be censored for student use? Yes 48 37% No 82 63% Total 130 100% Despite most respondents believing that Wikipedia should not be blocked at school, a significantly higher number believed that it should be censored through the schools’ filtering software. However, a clear majority favoured uncensored access. Those respondents who most favoured censorship were teachers of Citizenship, Design and Technology and Music. 14. On Wikipedia, have you ever encountered any of the following? Always Often Sometimes Rarely Never Censorship 0 2 28 28 72 0% 2% 22% 22% 55% Bias 0 12 59 42 17 0% 9% 45% 32% 13% Blatant vandalism 0 3 21 35 71 0% 2% 16% 27% 55% Subtle viewpoint presentation 1 13 48 37 28 1% 10% 38% 29% 22% With respect to censorship on the site itself, most respondents had never encountered censorship of Wikipedia articles. Bias was sometimes or rarely encountered and vandalism was not highlighted as a problem. Respondents did not generally report the encountering of subtle viewpoints on the site. 7 15. On Wikipedia have you ever encountered information that is: Always Often Sometimes Rarely Never Outdated? 0 13 62 41 13 0% 10% 48% 32% 10% Factually incorrect? 0 12 45 56 18 0% 9% 34% 43% 14% Respondents usually found that information encountered was not outdated and was usually factually correct. 16. Have you ever used the Wikipedia tutorial? Yes 2 2% No 130 98% Total 132 100% Only a couple of the respondents had ever used the Wikipedia tutorial. 17. Do you encourage your students to use Wikipedia for research? Yes 11 8% Yes (depending upon subject areas) 16 12% Yes (depending upon year level) 14 11% Yes (under supervision) 11 8% Yes (depending upon a number of factors) 18 14% No (I leave it to their discretion) 44 34% No (I actively discourage it) 10 8% Other, please specify 7 5% Total 131 100% 8 With respect to student research on Wikipedia, the picture was quite complex. Most teachers did not actively encourage use of Wikipedia by students, although some encouraged usage depending upon either the year level or the subject being taught. Very few teachers unconditionally encouraged its use with students. 18. How important an issue is student plagiarism of Wikipedia? Very important 68 52% Somewhat important 43 33% Neither important nor unimportant 14 11% Unimportant 3 2% Irrelevant 2 2% Total 130 100% Most respondents rated student plagiarism of Wikipedia as being either somewhat or very important. 19. Have you ever encountered student plagiarism of Wikipedia? Constantly 4 3% Often 22 17% Sometimes 49 38% Rarely 19 15% Never 36 28% Total 130 100% Although some respondents often encountered student plagiarism of Wikipedia, most only sometimes or rarely encountered it with over a quarter of respondents never encountering it. Teachers employed a variety of techniques in the classroom to combat plagiarism, including education of students about plagiarism, checking for stylistic anomalies and employment of robust consequences for students who persistently plagiarised. The techniques were not limited to Wikipedia itself, but were applied to a variety of digital and non-digital resources. Some teachers used a plagiarism module built into their school’s learning platform 9 21. Have you ever encouraged use of the “Schools’ Wikipedia”? Yes 7 5% No 125 95% Total 132 100% Very few respondents encouraged use of the “Schools’ Wikipedia”. 22. Do you usually use Wikipedia as: A starting place 75 63% An ending place 5 4% Both 39 33% Total 119 100% Although most respondents used Wikipedia as a starting place for research with very few using it as an ending place, a third of teachers reported using it both as starting and ending points. 23. Do you use any of the following Wikipedia features? External links 63 82% History tabs 20 26% Discussion 14 18% Community portal 4 5% Current events 12 16% A very high proportion of respondents used external links from Wikipedia articles. Some used the history tabs, but fewer reported using the discussion, community or current events facilities. 10 24. Are you confident that your students know about internet safety practices? Yes 74 56% No 57 44% Total 131 100% Internet safety practice represents one of the most significant concerns of teachers. Despite respondents generally believing that Wikipedia access should be neither blocked nor filtered, nearly half of the teachers were not confident that students knew about internet safety practices. Although this purely the teachers’ perceptions, it does highlight internet safety as being a (real or perceived) issue within schools and one that needs to be addressed When asked to describe the ways in which they used Wikipedia as a tool for teaching and learning, teachers almost unanimously described how they used it for their own research, to provide resources for teaching and to seek clarification of facts related to their subject areas. There was not a significant difference in the way in which male and female teachers responded to the questions with the exception that male teachers were more inclined to contribute and edit articles and also expressed fewer concerns about plagiarism than female teachers. There was also no significant difference in which primary and secondary teachers responded, with the exception that at Key Stages 1 and 2 greater concerns were expressed about internet safety issues, with a slightly higher proportion of teachers advocating either the blocking or filtering of access to Wikipedia.
Teachers used Wikipedia across a wide range of subjects, mainly focussed in the secondary school phase. Although few teachers had written articles for Wikipedia, a larger number had edited existing articles. Several had also posted feedback. Most teachers tended to use the Wikipedia search box for locating information, although use of topic areas was also popular. Teachers were less inclined to view either featured or random articles. Teachers had high levels of confidence in the balance, neutrality, scope, accuracy and reliability of Wikipedia although this varied according to subject areas. Teachers were less confident about the notability and verifiability of Wikipedia articles. 11 A small minority of teachers wanted student access to Wikipedia blocked at school, although a larger minority advocated censorship, with a clean majority advocating no censorship. Very few teachers had consistently encountered articles showing bias, subtle viewpoint presentation or blatant vandalism although all of these were reported to have occurred on occasions. There were also high reported levels of articles found being factually correct and current. Teachers took a variety of viewpoints with respect to the encouragement of students using Wikipedia for research. It was often left to students’ discretion, with teachers neither encouraging nor discouraging its usage. Plagiarism was seen as an important issue with respect to Wikipedia with many teachers sometimes encountering student plagiarism. The approach to dealing with plagiarism varied to a great extent. Teachers were divided in their confidence of students’ knowledge of internet safety practices, with the balance tipped towards those who were confident. This left nearly half, however, who were not confident that students knew about internet safety.
As the survey was restricted to a small group of teachers, recommendations drawn from this study are restricted to teachers rather than students at this stage. The use of websites such as Wikipedia appears widespread and popular with teachers. Teacher training organisations and those responsible for the continuous professional development of teachers could incorporate the exploration of the use of wikis into their development programmes, especially issues relating to collaborative knowledge production through writing and editing. Teachers could be encouraged to contribute to the development of ways in which wikis can be a valuable part of teaching and learning, through the development of new approaches to research and publication. Teachers awareness of internet safety issues and the role of all staff in promoting responsible internet usage by students should be a priority with schools striving to achieve a balance between internet filtering and educating children to use the internet in a safe and reasonable way. All teachers could be involved in internet safety training. Issues relating to website vandalism should be addressed too, with consideration being given to the risk of vandalism if editing and writing on wikis were actively encouraged. Plagiarism also needs to be considered with teachers being given the tools to educate against and combat the occurrence of plagiarism of wikis by children. As well as the employment of online plagiarism filters, teachers could employ a range of strategies to ensure that children’s production of work is their own, 12 with material obtained from wikis by children being interpreted, triangulated with other sources and produced in forms that adds intellectual value to the source material. Teachers gave some interesting responses to the open-ended question Beyond finding information from the encyclopaedia what, if anything, can students learn from Wikipedia? and many of these responses may be useful in formulating innovative ways in which wikis can be used to enhance teaching and learning. New concepts of information neutrality and reliability emerges, with teachers recognising that information is sometimes unreliable and that knowledge is often subjective. They often highlighted the need for teaching of research skills and the important of crossreferencing and triangulating information. Associated with this is the need for teachers to be able to help students to discern bias and prejudice in information and the different ways in which misinformation may be presented. Teachers balanced out these concerns by discussing the ways in which Wikipedia lends itself to collaborative criticism and self-review. Teachers often saw the power of internet sites such as Wikipedia as being examples of democratic tools, representing a thirst for information and desire to contribute for free to the collective wisdom of society. Teachers discussed Wikipedia as being an outstanding example of the way in which knowledge may be openly maintained, created and shared. It is a challenge to schools to respond in ways that promote the learning opportunities of wikis whilst educating about the responsibilities involved in the use such open and transparent systems . Albin Wallace March 2009