Is WikiPedia blocked at your school or library? Are administrators, teachers, and librarians in your school district wary to permit students to use WikiPedia for research purposes because of its dynamic nature?

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If that is the case, a conversation about our universal need for media literacy is probably appropriate. WikiPedia is often a great starting point for research about a variety of topics. As educators, we’ve never suggested that students ONLY use a single source for their research. External links at the bottom of WikiPedia articles are often excellent sources for additional information about topics. For the WikiPedia-averse in our school communities, I recommend advocating for WikiPedia use as a starting point for student research.

WikiPedia does include content which is considered inappropriate for students by some communities, however, and this poses an additional challenge for those advocating for open access to WikiPedia on our heavily-censored networks in U.S. schools. How can these issues be addressed and still permit students to have access to WikiPedia’s rich, diverse, up-to-date and in-depth content?

Like Canadien educator Darren Kuropatwa, you might consider advocating for the use of the 2008/9 Wikipedia Selection for schools. According to the website’s homepage:

Welcome to this Wikipedia Selection. This 2008/9 Wikipedia DVD Selection is a free, hand-checked, non-commercial selection from Wikipedia, targeted around the UK National Curriculum and useful for much of the English speaking world. It has about 5500 articles (as much as can be fitted on a DVD with good size images) and is about the size of a twenty volume encyclopaedia (34,000 images and 20 million words).

Wikipedia is the free encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and develops accurate content but suffers vandalism. Wikipedia is not necessarily a childsafe environment and has “adult” content. This selection of topics have been carefully chosen, tidied up, and checked for vandalism and suitability (by SOS Children volunteers, whom we gratefully acknowledge). We also gratefully acknowledge the Wikimedia Foundation for their support and their agreement to our use of the Wikipedia logo, and tens of thousands of contributors to Wikipedia who have written and researched the content in the first place, including this year adding content where gaps in the school curriculum were not covered.

The content is available for free download from the SOS Children website or as a 3.5GB free DVD. The content includes a shortened copy of the SOS Children website with details of projects in 123 countries. This selection is also browsable online at http://schools-wikipedia.org/. The content is covered by various disclaimers and licences.

We live in an amazing, digitally connected world, where educators who may live down the street or half-a-world away can assist us in providing the learning resources we need in our classrooms and homes today. Take the Wikipedia Selection for schools for a spin by browsing its pictorial subject index or its title word index. If you like what you see and want an offline copy, download one for free thanks to SOS Children UK and the Wikimedia Foundation.

Consider making a donation to SOS Children UK as well as to WikiPedia itself.

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  • While I understand why this has appeal, I think it completely undermines the power and intent of wikipedia. Downloading it online means schools have control of content but wikipedia is not about control. Why not just use Britannica online if you want filter and control.

    If it’s bandwidth or access issues, that’s one thing but as a filtering solution, it doesn’t excite me at all.
    It reminds me of this recent edutopia article:
    http://www.edutopia.org/web-2.0-tools-filtering-firewalls

    Wikipedia is great because it’s dynamic, organic and being built every second and yes, requires high levels of skeptism. Taking it offline turns it into another information sources just like traditional encyclopedias.

  • One could also download the app “Encyclopedia” on the iPhone or Touch. This app will download Wikipedia in its entirety (minus pictures and some other embedded items) for offline browsing. Obviously, you don’t get all the real time edits, but you can update the downloaded file as you feel you need to. I haven’t tried, but I have heard that the download is about 2 GB and costs about $8.

    All the human knowledge out there (well, a lot of it anyway) is worth $8. Go figure.

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  • Dean: I agree the dynamic value of WikiPedia IS one of its best points, but in working with educators and administrators in many U.S. schools I’ve realized we’ve got to take small steps forward to move forward at all in many cases. Just today I encountered a situation where someone basically accused anyone encouraging the use of moderated social networking environments in schools as encouraging educators to break the law and recklessly endanger the lives of children. This strikes me as highly irrational, but that is the view of some of our school leaders. In this sort of environment, I think we need to look for openings in conversations about the value of digital media. In cases where WikiPedia is banned outright because of objections over “adult content,” I think the Wikipedia Selection for schools has merit and value.

    This conversation reminds me of the debate over open-web publishing versus walled-garden publishing for students. One fear regarding walled-garden publishing is that students won’t EVER be permitted to publish on the open-web at school and thereby learn the power and politics involved in open-web publishing. On the other hand, if some districts are not encouraged to AT LEAST permit walled-garden use of web 2.0 tools and technologies, it appears they NEVER will.

    I’m not saying learners shouldn’t use WikiPedia. It’s “the real thing.” I do think, however, this offline version can be a door opener in cases where administrators and/or IT departments have given an unequivocal “no” to the question “Can we unblock WikiPedia for student use?”

  • I see the need for a happy medium here, particularly with the “over-censoredness” of some schools — not only in the US, but internationally also. There are many schools in the Middle East who would also welcome a “school” version of Wikipedia.

    So, while I understand the need for a Wikipedia for student use, I don’t understand the need to take it offline. Can’t there simply be a version of Wikipedia for schools online — like the one you linked to at http://schools-wikipedia.org/ ? Keeping it online continues to keep it organic, never “published” and always up-to-date. Of course, I assume the Wikipedia community is still the one updating it and not our classroom of 5th graders, but isn’t this a good place to start? I worry about the offline nature of Wikipedia for schools.

    I do, however, love the idea of it being done in conjunction with SOS Children’s Villages. Kudos to Wikipedia for that.

  • Glen Westbroek

    I understand and appreciate the opportunity to provide WikiPedia content via DVD for schools. Blocking policies very by district and sometimes what is good for instruction may not be allowed based on policy.

    I have created opportunities to help educate my students regarding Wikipedia. Often, as part of a lesson, I will pull in a short part of WikiPedia relating to our content. Early in the year, there are audible gasps as students realize I have a WikiPedia page open. We discuss the editing format of WikiPedia and how/why it can be a starting point for research but is NOT the end all “Truth” site. As students have needed to find references for science during this school year, I find many look at WikiPedia first and then rapidly visit more “scientific” sites.

    Now, my experience is slightly skewed as I work with Middle School students. I’m positive that differences will exist when teachers of Elementary, High School, and University professors consider Wikipedia in respect to their classes.

    I am in agreement with Wesley Freyer’s last comments above as he proposes “Can we unblock WikiPedia” for student use.” If this IT request is possible/achieved, then the idea of a DVD of WikiPedia is a moot question. Perhaps more importantly, it also ensures the learners are able to access the most up-to-date information from recent WikiPedia edits.

  • Wes,

    I guess I wonder if taking it offline and using it may, in fact, be a step backwards. Rather than working towards a more appropriate use and understanding of a potentially powerful resource, we’ve removed all that is unique about wikipedia and placed it in our more comfortable, traditional paradigm and thus avoided the conversations that need to take place.

    I can only relate a story about a teacher who used a blog but only had it accessible to parents and students. The students and teachers did not find the blog all that helpful because it ended up being too much like their classroom. She decided not to blog the next year.

    I’m just wondering if this might lead to more offline, walled garden thinking and thus strengthen beliefs that the internet is basically bad and that schools are better off when they control the learning. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Dean: It just might. Your comparison to the blog story is very appropriate. I’ve run into the same thing with administrators and teachers who ask, “Well can’t we just limit access to our classroom blog to our students and parents?” That misses a HUGE point about the value of publishing for a global audience. All the techno-panic issues play in here big too. I don’t know, maybe you’re right, perhaps promoting walled garden social networking and offline WikiPedia use could be a step backward? I know contexts and situations vary widely, however, so for some people I’m pretty sure these things would be steps forward. Better to take one step forward into a walled garden than zero steps forward and remain entrenched in a purely analog publishing world, I think.

    Transformative change is needed. Transformative change is less likely to happen with offline WikiPedia versions or walled-garden blogs.

    What do others think about this?

  • Walled-garden learning *can* be a step forward for some; it depends on the way it is approached. Fundamental to it being a step forward is an understanding that the “walls” are only temporary.

    I currently use closed blogs with my 6th and 7th graders who are just learning about how and why to blog. I see it as a regular part of scaffolding, much the way I used to teach writing before blogs were ever a part of it. Before they understand the nature of a blog and the inter-connectedness of it, they must understand how it works — essentially, they need a safe place to play. So, our blogs start as a sandbox of sorts — they figure out how it works before we go “live.”

    So, during the “walled time,” students learn much about the nature of writing for an audience; they also learn about cyber-bullying (because it inevitably happens), RSS feeds, internet safety, and much more. Our students are VERY new to these Web2.0 tools, and so keeping them in the walled garden at the start allows them to learn the responsibility that comes with the empowerment before taking it to the world beyond our school.

    It is my hope that the walls will come down completely in the future, as our students become more accustomed to using Web 2.0 tools, and they begin learning about it at an earlier age. But for now, the walls give us a safe place to play before we break it out “big” in the real blogosphere. The fundamentals of writing pedagogy still exist; these have not changed — young writers need to experiment first before publishing.

    Some teachers in our school do the same thing with wikis — learn here first, then open it up.

    The example that Dean gave is not the kind of authentic learning experience that a walled garden can foster. However, I do think there are times when the walled garden approach can be useful, and hopefully with time, we won’t need it at all. But every student, teacher, and school is at a different place when it comes to learning these tools and the “rules” for one should not necessarily be the rules for all — we need to meet them where they’re at and go from there.

  • I would think that this offline version would make a great supplement to the open online version of Wikipedia. I heard a journalist the other day mention that he uses the iPhone Wikipedia app on planes when he is working on stories and does not have access to the Internet. He can research for his story, get it completed and verify facts when he gets back on the grid.

    Transfer this to schools. There are still many places where students are relying on dial-up, if that. Having at least some type of access here is better than no access at all.

    So I guess again, like others, I am seeing the middle ground.

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