Research stories: Marte Blikstad-Balas on Wikipedia use in schools

Whimartebw_presse2lst for many Wikipedia has become an everyday tool for harvesting quick and easy knowledge, educational institutions continue to dissuade students against its use. In this interview Marte Blikstad-Balas tells us about her research, published last year in the Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, on Wikipedia use in schools.

So Marte, what sparked your interest in the use of Wikipedia in schools?

We all know that Wikipedia has a “bad reputation” in academia however despite this, students continue to use it in their schoolwork. Even with a number of research options available to them, students still prefer Wikipedia. As a literacy researcher, I was intrigued, why is this the case? To find out more, I investigated students’ attitudes towards Wikipedia as a knowledge source in schools.

How did you go about conducting your research?

Conducting a survey on upper-secondary school students helped me to understand how and why students use Wikipedia. From this, I began to understand the student’s perceptions of the main advantages and disadvantages of using it for their school assignments.

And what results did you collect?

As expected, I found that students favor Wikipedia because it is fast, flexible, and easy to use but it was pleasing to see that students appreciate it because it can be both superficial and more in-depth than a classroom textbook. I also found that some students use Wikipedia to go beyond the scope of their textbook. This is an important contradiction to the classical “copy-and-paste” perception that surrounds Wikipedia.

Many students did raise credibility issues as a disadvantage of Wikipedia. Some students stressed that content could be inaccurate or biased, and that the anonymous authorship is problematic. Others stated that their teachers’ lack of approval of the site is a major deterrent. Therefore, one of the main discussions in the article is about the discrepancy between students’ positive attitudes compared with their teachers’ lack of approval of Wikipedia.

What impact will this research have on the education community?

It contributes to shed light on the major shift in education in which teachers were traditionally seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge. With 1:1 access to the internet, school literacy is becoming more individualized. Students can now decide which kind of texts they want to use as a knowledge base. Today’s students gather their own information from sources outside of the classroom and frequently, this is from Wikipedia. Because of this, Wikipedia is blurring the lines of the classroom and replacing the traditional textbook purpose as the primary “provider of facts”.

It’s become common place in schools not simply because students enjoy using it but also because it fits so well with the other literacy practices in the school domain. When Wikipedia provides students with “all that they need”, this says something not only about the site, but also about how schools tend to favor quick, factual knowledge.

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Marte Blikstad-Balas is an Associate Professor at the Department of Education and School Research, University of Oslo as well as sitting on the advisory board for several international scientific journals. Her research interests are literacy and how digital technologies impacts school and learning. Many of her publications concern how students relate to different texts across school subjects and how 1:1 access to the internet in the classroom affects their studies. One of her most cited studies – Digital Literacy in Upper Secondary School – What Do Students Use Their Laptops for During Teacher Instruction? was recently included in the Education and Technology issue of the Routledge series “Major Themes in Education”.

Want to read more of Marte’s work on Wikipedia? Read “You get what you need”: A study of students’ attitudes towards using Wikipedia when doing school assignments.