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Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Philosophy and Ethics/Wiki Philosophy

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What is the philosophy of Wikipedia and Wikibooks?

Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project, operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization (Wikipedia:About). Dwight Allen’s ECI 301 course employs another operation of the Wikimedia Foundation known as Wikibooks. Wikibooks is a wiki for the creation of free content books. Prior to entry into this course many students may not be exposed to such projects and little do they know that they will be fully immersed in wiki in a matter of minutes. The question is not only what are these tools, but why or why shouldn’t we use them in an educational setting.



In order to understand the concept of Wikipedia, we need to break down the name itself into “Wiki-” and “-pedia”. “Wiki” refers to the type of website that it is. A “wiki”, is a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it. The word “wiki” was coined by Ward Cunningham, who started the first wiki “WikiWikiWeb”, when he rode the “Wiki Wiki” bus at the Honolulu International Airport (Wiki). “Wiki” being a Hawaiian term for fast. The suffix –pedia, stems from the word encyclopedia, which makes Wikipedia essentially the “quick encyclopedia.” Nowadays that translation rings true whenever one performs any internet search.

Wikipedia was founded as an offshoot of Nupedia, a peer reviewed encyclopedia that required highly qualified contributors which, in turn, was the limiting factor of growth. Nupedia was owned by Bomis, Inc., a web portal company. Larry Sanger, an employee of Bomis, exposed and sold Bomis CEO Jimmy Wales, on this new wiki concept, resulting in Nupedia’s first wiki. With resistance from those highly qualified contributors saying it would result in a loss of quality, this project was renamed to Wikipedia on January 15, 2001 (Wikipedia:About). Sanger led the project in its first year, and with this new format, information on Wikipedia could now be edited any time, any where, and by any body with internet access. This wiki implementation has resulted in exponential growth of 8.2 million articles in 253 languages. The English version alone accounts for 1.995 million articles, around fifteen times as many as the largest edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (Wikipedia).


The concept behind Wikipedia is to open the input of information to any culture with access to the World Wide Web. Every article submitted is subject to edit by anybody else. The only rules being: Posters are forbidden from filling articles with original research, only citable material that has already been published elsewhere is permitted, and every article is to be written from a neutral point of view (Read, Building an Encyclopedia, With or Without Scholars). In addition to the ability to edit, every article provides a history section recording all edits and a discussion section to discuss those changes, the goal being an article that has been agreed upon by many individuals from many different cultures without any bias.

This idea appears to be highly efficient when you look at the sheer magnitude of information provided by Wikipedia, the largest online encyclopedia compiled to date, While many articles are constantly being revised, a majority of the information is accurate and the product is extremely cheap when compared to that of a paper bound publication.


Wikipedia - The encyclopedia where you can be an authority, even if you don't know what the hell you're talking about."

When Wikipedia becomes our most trusted reference source, reality is just what the majority agrees upon.

—Stephen Colbert

Wikipedia, like many things in life, gets a bad rap simply because its negative attributes get more face time than its positive ones. For instance, many say that authorship is and should be the first and foremost boundary of misinformation. If one submits a document with his/her name on it, they are more likely to maintain a sense of validity so as to not tarnish their name. Wikipedia’s lack of authorship allows for anybody to say anything, whether it is correct or incorrect without any repercussions, the final result being a cheap imitation of a scholarly traditional resource (Shareski & Winkler). In addition, how can information be credible if not presented by a qualified professional? However this idea of an encyclopedia written by individuals with PhDs and professors is not new. Encyclopedia Britannica’s editorial board was not dominated by PhD holders until late in the 20th century. The first edition of the encyclopedia debuted in the 18th century (Read, Building an Encyclopedia, With or Without Scholars).

Wikipedia’s open edit system also makes it easy for articles to be vandalized at any given time. While Wikipedia does not show authorship, it does record the name of registered editors and the IP address of non registered editors incase of blatant vandalism. The obvious vandalisms are fixed almost immediately. The most famous vandalism to date would have to be Stephen Colbert’s resurrection of African Elephants. While still endangered, the host of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert, had viewers go to Wikipedia and edit the African Elephant article to report that “the African Elephant population had recently experienced a large population surge (Starnes). However those edits subtle enough to elude these lines of defense may go unfixed for an extended period of time. Also Wikipedia’s structure of peer review takes time to build quality. Therefore juvenile articles have not gone through the same rigorous editing process as those senior articles, resulting in a potential lack of quality. Discerning between high and low quality is then left up to the reader.


On the contrary, studies suggest that Wikipedia is broadly as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica, both containing equivocal errors and omissions (Wikipedia:About). Where Britannica’s errors are in print until the next edition, Wikipedia’s errors can be corrected instantaneously by anyone, anywhere. In addition to the overall accuracy, Wikipedia allows for a dialogue not possible between reader and author. Wikipedia’s edit history and discussion allows readers to understand arguments within certain topics in order to gain deeper insight of a potentially controversial subject (Achterman). Wikipedia is also a phenomenal source because historic information can be submitted moments after an incident occurs, keeping Wikipedia the most up to date encyclopedia available.

Is Wikipedia a Citable Source?Edit

This topic is essentially opinion based and is up to the instructor(s) to decide if a cited Wikipedia source is accepted. While not discouraging students from accessing information, there seems to be a general consensus that Wikipedia is not to be cited as a primary source. The first and foremost reason being, information cited may be false and that information may be removed from the article at any given time. Middlebury College’s History Department has actually limited the use of Wikipedia, stating in their various syllabi that “while Wikipedia is fine for some background research, it is not be used as a primary source (Read, Middlebury College History Department Limits Students Use of Wikipedia).” Dean Shareski points out “Wikipedia provides a great starting point…” not only because it is usually accurate, “but the wealth of links provided within most articles. These links provide depth and detail to an already substantial amount of information.”


Wikipedia has the potential to be an extremely useful tool when it comes to research. Its accuracy is up to par with paper bound encyclopedias and provides a plethora of features that go above and beyond the capabilities of any paperbound encyclopedia. Whether it may be cited will have to be decided by instructors. “However, time does need to be spent showing students how to deconstruct articles and understand the process of creation. But to disregard Wikipedia as a valuable resource is a mistake.”(Shareski & Winkler)

Multiple Choice QuestionsEdit

Click to reveal the answer.

Billy wants to edit a Wikipedia article about north pole elves and the poor housing conditions provided by President Clause. What does Billy need to accomplish this task?

A. A computer with Internet access

B. A sleigh with eight tiny reindeer

C. A legal pad and a rotary phone

D. Elvin booties and tinsel

A. A computer with Internet access

Gustov attends Middlebury College and is a History Major. He is writing the last essay of the year, only to realize his only source of information is Wikipedia. Gustov should...

A. Throw in the towel and try again next year.

B. Use the references in Wikipedia to supplement his resources.

C. Pretend like he never got a syllabus.

D. Say his dog ate his term paper.

B. Use the references in Wikipedia to supplement his resources.

A student is using Wikipedia to gain a better understanding of a topic of interest. To explore multiple arguments on this controversial subject the student should...

A. Check the history section of the article to see what edits have been made.

B. Check the discussion section to see why certain edits were made.

C. Ask the previous editor for more insight on a specific edit.

D. All of the above.

D. All of the above.

Wikipedia is the first online peer reviewed encyclopedia.



B. False

Jose is browsing a Wikipedia article just submitted a few hours ago. Jose should be aware that…

A. This article is accurate because it is new and has very little time to be vandalized.

B. This article is more likely to contain bias or errors because it has had very little time to be edited and agreed upon by many Wikipedia users.

C. This article is more than likely written by the President of the United States.

D. Wikipedia is a terrible source and nothing on it should be taken seriously.

B. This article is more likely to contain bias or errors because it has had very little time to be edited and agreed upon by many Wikipedia users.

Essay QuestionEdit

Click to reveal a sample response.

As a future instructor, how would you approach Wikipedia and its use as a citable source?

Wikipedia would be a great way to teach students about reliable versus unreliable sources. It would be very helpful in teaching students what to look out for so as not to use faulty information in their research. Since Wikipedia is open source and can be changed by anyone, it is a great way to explain Internet sources and the hazards and benefits that go along with it.

Students could use Wikipedia as a source if they could guarantee the information factual and did not want to use a different source. What I would recommend for students would be to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research. It gives them a general idea of the topic and can help them pick the focus. Students can then check the works referenced in the article and potentially use those as sources. It will teach them to check citations on websites and gives them a resource to find other good sources. Students could even update the Wikipedia entry if, as they were doing their research, they found something to be wrong. It integrates the technology, helps them understand how it works, and shows them that it is necessary to check out Internet sources. —Cristin Pullman


  • Achterman, D. (2006). Beyond Wikipedia. Teacher Librarian. 34 no2 D 2006, 19-22.
  • Read, B. (2006). Building an Encyclopedia, With or Without Scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 53 no10 1 O 27 2006.
  • Read, B. (2007). Middlebury College History Department Limits Students Use of Wikipedia. Chronicle of Higher Education; 2/16/2007, Vol. 53 Issue 24. pA39-A39, 1c.
  • Shareski, D. & Winkler, C. A., Are Wikis Worth the Time? Learning & Leading with Technology. December/January 2005-2006
  • Starnes, B. A. (2006). On Truthiness, Wiki-ality, and Driving on a Treadmill. Thoughts on Teaching. October 2006.
  • Wikipedia: About. (2007, Sept. 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 23, 2007 from
  • Wikipedia. (2007, Sept. 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 6, 2007 from
  • Wiki. (2007, Sept. 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 6, 2007 from