Schools' FAQ

This FAQ page deals with some questions that teachers, librarians and school administrators might have about the content of information in Wikipedia, and use of Wikipedia by students. If you are thinking about assigning Wikipedia as a class project, see Wikipedia:Student assignments. For more general information, please see Wikipedia:Advice for parents.

What does wiki mean?

The term "wiki" is derived from the word wikiwiki, which is the Hawaiian word for "quick". A wiki is a web site which allows people to contribute content; see our article on wikis for more information.

Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable?

The reliability of Wikipedia articles is limited by the external sources on which articles rely on, as well as by the ability of Wikipedia's editors to understand those sources correctly and their willingness to use them properly. Therefore, articles may or may not be reliable, and readers should always use their own judgment. Students should never use information in Wikipedia (or any other online encyclopedia) for formal purposes (such as school essays) until they have verified and evaluated the information based on external sources. For this reason, Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a great starting place for research but not always a great ending place.
Wikipedia is rapidly developing, and its editors strive, over time, to increase its reliability as a source of information. Readers are encouraged to compare articles to what they already know from reliable sources and improve the articles' accuracy and detail. Because of its growing utility, Wikipedia is cited almost daily in the press.
It is possible for a given Wikipedia article to be biased, outdated, or factually incorrect. This is true of any resource. One should always double-check the accuracy of important facts, regardless of the source. In general, popular Wikipedia articles are more accurate than ones that receive little traffic, because they are read more often and therefore any errors are corrected in a more timely fashion. Wikipedia articles may also suffer from issues such as Western bias, but hopefully this will also improve with time.

What prevents someone from contributing false or misleading information?

Wikipedia's content control mechanisms are reactive rather than preventive: anyone can go to almost any page and change information to be false or misleading. Although the majority of edits attempt to improve the encyclopedia, vandalism is frequent.
Fortunately, such deliberate errors tend not to linger. Hundreds of Wikipedia contributors monitor real-time edit feeds (particularly for important or controversial articles) and quickly revert most inappropriate edits. Many articles are on one or more editors' personal watchlists (and major articles are watched by hundreds of editors), and this provides a second layer of content control. Wikipedia's huge user base is constantly analyzing and improving articles, undoing vandalism as it is found. If a user changes a statistic or date by even a little bit, without justifying their edit, they are particularly likely to raise a red flag. If an individual continues to vandalize after being warned, then they may be blocked from further editing.
The key to this reactive system is that Wikipedia, unlike mainstream print sources, keeps a full history of every change to every article. Nothing is ever lost, and no abuse is permanent. See Wikipedia:Edit history for more information.
All that being said, Wikipedia is not perfect. A reader may have the bad luck of arriving at a page just after it has been vandalized and before it has been repaired. There have been incidents in the past where vandalism has been discovered still in place months after the fact. At any given time, there is some inaccurate information somewhere in Wikipedia. It is for this reason that readers must be particularly diligent in verifying Wikipedia against its external sources. It is also a good idea, if you feel uncomfortable about an article, to check its history for recent bad edits. If you find a piece of uncorrected vandalism, you can correct it yourself.

Can students cite Wikipedia in assignments?

It depends on what teachers accept. Wikipedia can be an excellent starting place for further research. Teachers might ask students what they did to validate the information they learned from Wikipedia. Using a comprehensive search engine, students can compare Wikipedia content with information from other reputable websites. Most Wikipedia articles also contain an "External links" section at the bottom, which often leads to other relevant sites. Students can compare information in Wikipedia with information in other encyclopedias or books. As a general rule, contributors to Wikipedia are encouraged to cite their sources, but, of course, not all do. For the sake of verifiability, it is advisable to cite an article that has listed its sources. Most of our better articles have sections such as "References", "Sources", "Notes", "Further reading", or "External links", which generally contain such information.
For purposes of establishing authorship and finding more sources, students may also find the articles' "View history" tabs useful, as these detail every contribution, the contributor and often a summary of what was contributed. All of our contributors have user talk pages for leaving them messages. If you are logged in, a toolbox link ("E-mail this user") is also visible beside the user pages of many registered contributors. Other means of contacting Wikipedians are listed at Wikipedia:Contact us.

Is Wikipedia a safe environment for young people?

Wikipedia has similar safety issues to other equally open environments. Participation in Wikipedia requires children to know basic Internet safety practices. Children will be communicating and interacting with anonymous adults, and parent or teacher supervision is important, just as in any other online environment. The usual internet safety rules apply: do not give out personal information, do not arrange to meet someone you meet on Wikipedia, and report to a responsible adult at once if anyone is making you feel uncomfortable. In any case, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia project, not a social environment for making friends, and chat is generally discouraged.
Wikipedia has the advantage that most communication is done in an open, public, reviewable manner (even personal talk page messages are readable by anybody). Note, however, that in contrast to some sites directed towards youth, Wikipedia does not have staff to patrol discussion pages or remove inappropriate comments; it only has volunteer administrators, who will exclude people breaching civility rules, but who will not censor conversations if they deal with adult topics. Wikipedia has a policy on child protection and will remove editors who are suspected of being dangerous towards children either online or in the real world. However, children and their parents must understand that Wikipedia does not collect information about its editors (in the way that sites such as Facebook do), and most editors are anonymous.
Wikipedia is not censored. It contains articles on subjects such as racial slurs, controversial political and religious issues and movements, the methodologies of terrorism and violence, and sexual acts, including images of nudity. Articles, including those on human reproduction, may contain anatomical, graphic photographs of sexual organs, which certain cultures may find inappropriate for children. However, Wikipedia can be configured to hide these images if desired.
Pages which are normally appropriate for children to use are occasionally vandalized with rude words or content which may be offensive. Vandalism is normally noticed and removed within a few minutes – if not seconds – but it is still possible that a person may access a page before this is dealt with.

What is free media?

Free media (also called free information, among other terms) is a kind of information which can be used and modified by anyone. Free refers to freedom, not price. The concept of freedom in computing began in earnest when Richard Stallman published the GNU Manifesto in 1985. MediaWiki is a free software software package that supports a free encyclopedia.
Development relies on qualified users to maintain a constantly-improving collection, whether it is a collection of computer code or of encyclopedic information. Free collections typically maintain back-up resources, so if a developer accidentally damages the code or the content, it can easily be reverted to an earlier, stable version. The same backup system provides protection against malicious damage to a free project.

Why do people contribute to free projects?

Few surveys have developed reliable answers to why people contribute to free works like Wikipedia. Some sort of public interest or community spirit is often part of the motive. Free projects offer an opportunity to contribute to something that has lasting value and that will continue to grow. Free publishing allows writers and software developers to apply their skills outside of a strictly business environment. Casual writers and editors sometimes participate as a hobby or as a learning experience. Classrooms may evaluate and post information as a learning activity. Volunteering is also one of the few ways writers and Web designers can gain experience and exposure without already having any.

Why have we not heard of this before?

Most people will encounter Wikipedia for the first time through a search engine. Many search queries will return a Wikipedia article on the first results page. Others may see it referenced on other websites or in the media. Wikipedia does not advertise, so public knowledge of Wikipedia is mostly a result of word of mouth, readers discovering the service while browsing online, or people learning about the encyclopedia from news reports.
Many other online encyclopedias copy Wikipedia (these are called "mirror sites"), which is allowed because it uses a free information license (see the section What is free media? above). You may have come across a Wikipedia article without knowing it. However, these other sites are often quite out of date, so it is usually better to use the Wikipedia article than the mirror site.

Beyond information from the encyclopedia, what can students learn from Wikipedia?

Most young people will likely be involved in interactive online activities. For educators, young people's involvement with Wikipedia provides an opportunity to survey their understanding of online safety, and to teach appropriate practices. Educators can use Wikipedia as a way of teaching students to develop hierarchies of credibility that are essential for navigating and conducting research on the Internet.
Wikipedia provides an opportunity for teachers to discuss the concept of free information, and freedom in general. Wikipedia is an opportunity to participate in an open community that relies primarily on mutual respect and cooperation, but which is not related to familiar authority figures some youths might tend to oppose.
Editing in Wikipedia is an opportunity to learn to participate in collective editorial processes. Wikipedia presents a ready opportunity for youths to research, compile and publish articles for peer review. For youths who contribute images, selection and production of an image provides opportunities to learn what a market wants from an artist. Youths who master skills for accurate writing and drawing about encyclopedic subjects are better equipped to develop their own style in more creative genres.
Because all articles in Wikipedia must conform to a neutral point of view, students participating in collaborative editing activities on Wikipedia are building experience in detecting and eliminating bias in writing.

Can we set up our own wiki?

Yes. The MediaWiki software which powers Wikipedia is a free software package and copies can be acquired for free, which means anyone who knows how to use it and who has access to a server computer may set up their own wiki project. Due to the nature of free software, the MediaWiki software can be modified by anyone with the technical skill to do so to better fit their needs, and these changes can be redistributed to help others who might desire the same changes.
Access to a wiki database can be password protected, to allow groups to develop an open document within their membership. Passwords can allow a wiki to be developed by a school club, a teachers' group, a regional group of schools, or any group within an educational community. Wikis might be used for school histories, to develop yearbook material or as class projects. A group can operate a wiki project online or within a closed local area network.
Even without access to a server computer, anyone with a personal computer may download the MediaWiki software and run it as a personal wiki.

Where can I learn more about Wikipedia?

Visit Wikipedia:About for more information about us, as well as the Community Portal.

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