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The quest for knowledge: Wikipedia

To help students consider the difference between knowledge, truth and wisdom, as Wikipedia celebrates its 10th anniversary.

by Tim and Vicky Scott

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To help students consider the difference between knowledge, truth and wisdom, as Wikipedia celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1. Ask students to describe the meaning of the word ‘knowledge’ and record their answers on a flipchart. On another page, you could do the same exercise for ‘wisdom’.
  2. Imagine a world in which every single human being could freely share in the sum of all human knowledge. That's the aim behind the development of one of the most popular websites on the internet today. Can you guess the website?
  3. Ten years ago on 15 January 2001, Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopaedia, was officially launched. It is a free encyclopaedia with almost 3.5 million articles in English alone. There are other Wikipedias under development in more than 125 languages. Wikipedia is one of the five most visited websites worldwide. From the founding of Wikipedia in January 2001, the growth of the website has been staggering. All Wikipedia languages combined contain more than 16,100,000 articles. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.

    The name ‘Wikipedia’ comes from two words: ‘wiki’ (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from a Hawaiian word meaning ‘quick’) and ‘encyclopedia’. Since the site has virtually unlimited disk space, it can include far more topics than can be covered by any conventional print encyclopedia.

  4. The founder of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales, an American internet entrepreneur. In 1999, Jimmy Wales had the concept of a freely distributable encyclopedia and founded Nupedia. He hired Larry Sanger, a philosopher, as editor-in-chief and assigned two programmers to write software for it. Nupedia failed, but after two years of working with the Nupedia concept, the same team opened Wikipedia to help channel content into Nupedia. Wikipedia became an instant success, but not in way they expected, and Nupedia was shut down. In 2003, Jimmy set up the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization, to support Wikipedia and its sister projects. Its stated mission is: ‘to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.’
  5. Anyone can contribute knowledge to Wikipedia, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers contribute content to it from all over the world. This is seen by some as its major strength and by others as its great weakness. Knowledge is democratic. Does that mean that anyone, regardless of their level of competence in a particular area, should be allowed to join in? On Wikipedia, everyone’s contribution is of equal value. When changes to an article are made, they become available immediately to anyone via the web, before undergoing any review, no matter if they contain an error, are somehow misguided or even complete nonsense. The site is based around consensus; critics say, however, that this does not lead to a greater approximation to the truth.
  6. Knowledge needs to be verified to be of any real value to us. Verification shows whether knowledge is true or false, neutral or biased. If true, it is reliable and trustworthy; if false, it is unreliable and useless. While there are many excellent, balanced or ‘neutral’, well-researched Wikipedia articles, there are occasionally poor, misleading, biased and even deliberately false articles posted, making Wikipedia in some cases an unreliable and inaccurate reference source. Wikipedia tends to leave editors to police and correct mistakes that occur for themselves. However, scholarly work has shown that articles that are ‘vandalized’ are generally short-lived, and that when compared to the famous Encyclopaedia Britannica reference work, Wikipedia’s material came close to it in its level of accuracy.
  7. Is it wrong for contributors to claim knowledge that they don’t have and have never worked for? Does Wikipedia lead to too many amateurs having too much power to persuade people that they have true knowledge about a subject?

    School and university students often refer to Wikipedia articles as a substitute for their own explanations of concepts or descriptions of events. Does Wikipedia lead to plagiarism (cheating) and anti-intellectualism? What do you think?

Time for reflection

For wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.

(Proverbs 2.10)

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13.2)

What is knowledge and how does it differ from ‘wisdom’?

Prayer
Lord, thank you for resources like Wikipedia.
Help us to use such resources wisely and responsibly.
God of truth, help us to become not only more knowledgeable
but more wise, so that we may live more wisely,
knowing and showing your love to others.
Amen.

Publication date: January 2011   (Vol.13 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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