Open Access to Information and the Value of Wikipedia

          I feel most fortunate to have been given the opportunity to travel to London and attend the BETT conference. To top it all off Jimmy Wales was one of the opening keynote speakers. His topic of discussion was the open access to information, a suitable topic given he is the founder of the much debated free online encyclopedia known as Wikipedia. I was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Wales and his views on how Wikipedia fits into our daily lives. His speech was so inspiring I decided to write a blog entry outlining my key takeaways.


First and foremost and probably the most important takeaway in regulation to me as a teacher was Mr. Wales’ support that Wikipedia should not be used as a cited source, especially at the secondary and post-secondary level.  To paraphrase, Wales states “Wikipedia is a tertiary source that should be used as starting point to springboard your research”. Of course, he was very proud of the level of quality and the code of ethics his site provides and was confident that if the student did start on Wikipedia they were sure to find something useful to guide their investigative journey. He urged teachers in the audience to take the time to teach the students proper research techniques. He recommended that teachers use Wikipedia to model proper use as well as contribute edits if something looks to be incorrect or incomplete. Wales’ genuine recognition that Wikipedia is not a primary source was refreshing. The reality is that all of our students are using his site as a primary place for information and we need to ensure that the students realize that what is on Wikipedia is only a preview into what is available to them.

If we know that all our students are using it as a resource, what do we know about who is curating and creating the information? Wales took time to highlight some key statistics and demographics. To me they were very surprising and disturbing. Wales stated that almost 87% of the active contributors were male and the average age was 26 years old. He also pointed out that the males that were contributing were of the “nerdy, tech savvy type”. He qualified his earlier claim that the information was relevant and accurate by mentioning that that Wikipedia has a very large number of contributors that are academics and holders of PHDs. Wales openly admitted that the male-centricness of the site was a problem and called for more females to join the community to increase the female voice, as well as beef up the topics that might be of more interest to females. One of the real issues that Wales highlighted is that people tend to write passionately about what they are interested in and so the most carefully curated and current information tends to be things that 26 year old, nerdy tech guys are interested in. Wales also joked that men have a tendency to “write with authority about things they know nothing about” a trait he says is less apparent in women. Women need to be more active for two reasons: First to provide a female perspective to content that is already on Wikipedia and second to beef up female-centric topics and interests.


Wales then took some time to address one of Wikipedia’s current projects that was very near and dear to him. This project I had no idea about until sitting in on his keynote and I am glad I got the opportunity to learn more about it because I feel it is a very important and noble undertaking. The project is called Wikipedia Zero and the mission is to encourage cellular companies to make Wikipedia available to all their customers for free. This is quite an ambitious and impactful project, especially in Africa where the majority of internet access is through mobile devices and cellular plans. Many providers have already pledged to make the use of Wikipedia free on their plans and the result of which has opened up an avenue of information access to millions of people that they would normally not have access to. Access to up-to-date information will help to transform Africa’s (and other developing countries) educational landscape and hopefully help to improve the overall quality of life in these regions.

It was certainly refreshing to see a company whose entire mission is to provide accurate and current knowledge to everyone at no cost. I personally believe it is time that teachers around the world embrace Wikipedia as a legitimate and reliable source for information and start to develop best practices for using it to guide research. I believe we need to become part of the collaborative effort to maintain its integrity so that all can benefit from having access to the most current and accurate information available. I have included links on how to learn more about joining the community. I have never personally contributed to Wikipedia, but I will be sure to start after witnessing this inspiring talk by Jimmy Wales. Jimmy you had me at information for free!

3 thoughts on “Open Access to Information and the Value of Wikipedia

  1. I love the idea of an assignment that requires students to check the factual accuracy of a wikipedia entry and edit it (or not) accordingly. This is definitely something I might incorporate in my English classes as a research-based project, especially since the students could choose to work on any article that is of interest to them personally… and perhaps also adopt a “stub”? Since I teach in an all-girl school, this would, additionally, address Mr Wales’ desire to increase the representation of female voices. Great food for thought – thanks for posting!

  2. Ryan, what a great “show and tell” from your experience at BETT! It sounds like an incredibly worthwhile learning experience.

    I loved this quote: “we need to ensure that the students realize that what is on Wikipedia is only a preview into what is available to them.” I totally agree that Wikipedia has a powerful place in classroom, but to use it as a appetizer before the main course should be the focus.

    A great share! Keep posting…I love what you have to say!

  3. Hi Ryan,
    Thanks for sharing this experience! It’s struck a cord with me, and frankly his message about Wikipedia as a Tertiary Resource couldn’t be repeated loud enough or often enough!

    Any thoughts on incorporating this into an action plan?

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