Black-Market Learning or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Wikipedia

“Wikipedia is essential for learning, but problematic for education.”

It doesn’t have to be.¹

Wikipedia is the black market of learning², arousing skepticism for challenging two mainstream models of contemporary education. First, it’s part of the same “citizen”-driven knowledge acquisition that has fostered citizen journalists and citizen scientists—and disrupted traditional concepts of credibility. Perhaps even more disruptive, as academia and assessment move to more administrative outcomes, Wikipedia remains learning-driven.³

Here are 10 reasons why teachers should be using Wikipedia as a resource.

Photograph by Blend Images/Shutterstock
Photograph by Blend Images/Shutterstock

1. Wikipedia helps students understand what an encyclopedia is—a starting point, not the finishing line. When students begin researching a subject, Wikipedia is probably the second-best place to start. (The first? Our own encyclopedia, of course! Our more reader-friendly text might give students a great general idea of what a concept is, but Wikipedia provides a wealth of sources and serves as a model for an academic outline and citation structure.) Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should probably not be citations for papers, but they’re fantastic clearing-houses for where to search. Want a quick way to browse Wikipedia’s strongest entries? Here’s a link to “featured articles.”

2. Wikipedia can help derail plagiarism. Wikipedia entries are probably the most plagiarized sources among student papers. If teachers are familiar with a Wikipedia entry, they can address plagiarization in two ways. First, if students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source, the teacher can identify the plagiarized portion of a paper and ask the student to find the information from a more credible source or leave it out. Second, if students are allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source, teachers can identify the plagiarized portion of a paper and ask the student to cite it using the acceptable method: Chicago, MLA, Turabian, etc.4 The Citation Machine will even do this for them! Just have the website handy and fill in the blanks. Still worried about plagiarism and aren’t familiar enough with Wikipedia to make a quick check? No problem! Churnalism is a terrific resource that quickly compares a chunk of writing with Wikipedia and other online sources. Just paste in the text and Churnalism will indicate exactly how it might be plagiarized or not.

3. Wikipedia is STEM-friendly. Scientists and scientific researchers have been among the earliest and most enthusiastic contributors to Wikipedia. Science and math-related articles are so authoritative, they’re often too dense for casual reading—which makes them great first-hand encyclopedia resources.5

4. Wikipedia lets students explore languages. If a student is more familiar and comfortable doing initial research in Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic (or Hindi, Swedish, or Latin)—there are Wikipedias for that!

5. Wikipedia is adding a fresh new element to the traditional college experience. High school students who are familiar with the wealth of resources offered to Wikipedia users (geo-location, alternate language texts, making a book) are in a great position to more fully engage with Wikipedia’s editorial process. Wikipedia’s campus ambassadors organize and participate in coding and editorial hack-a-thons, clubs, and may earn service credits for addressing Wikipedia’s content gaps.6

6. Wikipedia lets teachers teach.7 (This is my favorite!) Access to knowledge is not learning. Eternally improving search engines have allowed students to engage with a fill-in-the-blank, “find more, think less” concept of learning. Search engines and Wikipedia cannot introduce interconnections, critical thinking, or questioning authority. Only good teachers can do that.

7. Wikipedia frees us from the Tyranny of the Experts. (Respectful apologies to William Easterly) The Wikipedia project has tacitly addressed a classic research conundrum: Should Lenin write the “the book” on Marx?8 Should he be banned from contributing to it? Wikipedia encourages a respect for knowledge—not a person’s title or salary alone.9

8. Wikipedia is what democracy looks like. It’s discursive, messy, and loud. There are trolls. There is always more intra-group discourse than inter-group discourse. No one is ever, ever, entirely satisfied with the results . . . but (most) everyone is willing to keep working to improve them. There are a lot worse civics lessons to learn.

9. Wikipedia is empowering. Never, ever, underestimate the tenacity and sagacity of passionate amateurs. This student used Wikipedia to start researching a way to prevent deaths from cancer. (Ho hum.) What could your students research—human rights? near-earth objects? their taxes?

10. Wikipedians want to help! The Wiki Education Foundation was created to increase college students’ contributions to Wikipedia by directly working with their professors to develop classroom assignments.11 Learn more about the Wiki Education Foundation and the Wikipedia Education Program here.


1. “The Future of Education,” Wikimania 2014, London, August 9, 2014.

2. White, David. “What’s left to teach now that Wikipedia has done everyone’s homework?” Lecture, Wikimania 2014, London, August 9, 2014.

3. ibid

4. Davis, LiAnna. “The 7 biggest mistakes the Wikipedia Education Program has made — and what we’ve learned from them,” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 8, 2014.

5. Flanagan, Tighe. “Wikipedia in Education: By the Numbers.” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 10, 2014.

6. Davis, LiAnna. “Wikipedia Education Collaborative Panel,” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 8, 2014.

7. White. “What’s left to teach now that Wikipedia has done everyone’s homework?

8. Aharoni, Amir E. “How I Wrote an Article for Another Encyclopedia, and How It Compares to Wikipedia,” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 8, 2014.

9. Jemielniak, Dariusz. “Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia (On Trust, Distrust, Betrayal and Loyalty),” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 8, 2014. Based on the author’s book.

10. Harris, Brandon. “State of the Wiki,” Lecture, Wikimania 2014, London, August 9, 2014. Andraka, Jack. “Open Access, Innovation, and Pancreatic Cancer,” Lecture, Wikimania 2014, London, August 9, 2014. Tretikov, Lila. “State of the Wiki,” Lecture, Wikimania 2014, London, August 9, 2014.

11. Davis, LiAnna. “Ask the Wiki Education Foundation,” Session, Wikimania 2014, London, August 8, 2014. 

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