July 5, 2012

Is Wikipedia Too Complex for You (or your students)?

I was doing a Web search on some science terms this week for a post on another blog. I happened to be using Bing and was surprised that the top result was not Wikipedia (as I expected), but it was the Simple English Wikipedia at simple.wikipedia.org. I didn't even know that another Wikipedia existed.

Even though people often bad mouth Wikipedia as a poor place to do research (I disagree), apparently the information there is too complex for some users.

I was searching the term aphelion, but the standard Wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphelion  redirects for "Aphelion" and "Perihelion" to "Apsis" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apsis which has a much more complicated article. Yes, a definition of aphelion is in there, but it was simpler to read the Simple Wikipedia entry on the term.

So why is there a simpler Wikipedia?

Before you start hearing arguments about the erosion of education and the world of knowledge in general, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about this alternate version.
The Simple English Wikipedia is a Wikipedia encyclopedia, written in basic English.

Articles in the Simple English Wikipedia use fewer words and easier grammar than the English Wikipedia.

The Simple English Wikipedia is also for people with different needs. Some examples of people who use Simple English Wikipedia: Students, children, adults who might find it hard to learn or read and people who are learning English.

Other people use the Simple English Wikipedia because the simple language helps them understand difficult ideas or topics they do not know about.

When the Simple English Wikipedia began in 2003, the ordinary English Wikipedia already had 150,000 articles, and seven other Wikipedias in other languages had over 15,000 articles. Since the other Wikipedias already have so many articles, most Simple English articles take articles from other Wikipedias and make them simple; they are usually not new articles. Right now, the Simple English Wikipedia has 84,531 articles.

This makes Simple English articles a good way to understand difficult articles from the ordinary English Wikipedia. If someone cannot understand an idea in complex English, they can read the Simple English article.

Many articles are shorter than the same articles in the English Wikipedia. Technical subjects use some terms which are not simple. Every effort is made to explain these terms in simple language.
It makes good sense to me, especially the idea that it is for "for people with different needs" such as adults who might find it hard to learn or read and people who are learning English.

I am always amused and bemused when I hear teachers at all levels say that "I don't allow my students to use Wikipedia," as if they follow their students home and to the library when they are doing research. Your students use it. They just don't cite it.

Yes, Wikipedia is one of the top sources for plagiarism. All the more reason to teach how to use it better and how to cite it. In most cases the Wikipedia article has better documentation for sources than the papers you get from students - and better than citations than in articles you read online in most major publications.

When I was a young student in the last century, we used encyclopedias and World Book was the one my teachers didn't want us to use. It was the Wikipedia of its day - too simple; too easy. That was wrong to do then. It's wrong to make believe that Wikipedia is not useful. Even with the flaws inherent in its use by students, it is here to stay. Use it. Teach how to use it.

And start giving your students who have different needs the link to Simple Wikipedia.

cross-posted from Serendipity35

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