There’s been so much talk among educators on whether Wikipedia should be banned from school, that it may come as a surprise to some that a school has actually been banned from Wikipedia.
I discovered the situation this morning, when I was conducting my daily review of my Wikipedia watchlist. For those of you who aren’t Wikipedians, a watchlist is a personalized collection of Wikipedia entries that you’ve selected for monitoring future edits, often because you’re one of the editors of those pages. For example, my watchlist includes entries I’ve created, like Ksar Ouled Soltane and Hao Wu, as well as entries relevant to me personally, like Andy Carvin and Digital Divide Network.
As I perused my watch list, I saw there had been a change to the entry for the video blog Rocketboom. On a previous occasion I’d caught someone vandalizing that entry, so I added it to my watchlist. So it came as no huge surprise when I discovered that the entry had been vandalized again, using a word that I won’t mention so this story won’t get blocked arbitrarily by school district Web filters. Fixing it was easy – I simply reverted the entry to its pre-vandalized state. But the vandalism annoyed me enough that I felt it was important to post a warning on the vandal’s user talk page, which is sort of a notice board that each Wikipedian has to dialogue with other Wikipedians.
Reviewing the page, it became clear that they had a long history of vandalism complaints – so much so that their IP address had been banned on several occasions, preventing users of that computer from making further edits. Throughout the talk page there are warnings from other Wikipedians saying they must cease vandalizing the website immediately. Most interestingly, though, there’s a note at the bottom of the page from one of the people behind the IP address in question:
Hi, this IP adress is that of my schools. Please dont block us from wikipedia complety, but do go ahead to block us from editing.
As it turns out, the IP address is owned by a school in Canada, with many students and teachers sharing the same Internet access point. If you review the list of all edits made from the address, you’ll find dozens of instances of vandalism going back to November 2002. They’ve managed to vandalize pages ranging from Gaia Theory to the 1995 Quebec Referendum to even the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake.
It’s quite understandable for Wikipedians to want to block this IP address to prevent any more vandalism on the site. But it makes me wonder just what, if anything, about Wikipedia was being taught in the school where all of this took place. Since I didn’t find any constructive edits made by the IP address in question, my guess is that there was no curricular activity in which students were encouraged to examine Wikipedia critically. In many ways, this incident should serve as a teachable moment for this school and others. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but that’s what makes it such an interesting tool when it comes to teaching media literacy. By democratizing the role of editor, Wikipedia raises important questions regarding credibility, the wisdom of crowds vs the sovereignty of experts, trust and anonymity, among other topics.
Students and teachers should debate Wikipedia and even contribute to it; remember, it’s a work-in-progress, not a finished body of work. But all too often, the debate over Wikipedia’s merits is left among the educators only, with students left out of the conversation and operating on a simple directive: don’t use it. By ignoring Wikipedia rather than teaching critical, responsible uses of it, schools are practically inviting students to edit Wikipedia at their own peril. We should be preparing students for constructive participation in the Read/Write Web; otherwise it might as well be the Read/Vandalize Web. -andy