The Role of Wikipedia in EAP – Take Two

I realised after publishing my previous post, and turning on my critical thinking brain a little too late, that I had actually written about using Wikipedia in university/academic essays – and had (*embarrassed cough*) actually ignored the EAP aspect altogether. So I sneakily changed the previous post’s title… and am writing this new post now to address the EAP issues in the Wikipedia debate!

So, what are the aspects of using Wikipedia that might be specific to EAP students?

In the previous post, I made the point that Wikipedia can function as a good starting point for some initial research. However, EAP students are perhaps more in danger than other students of not continuing their research from Wikipedia to proper academic sources; depending on their educational and cultural background, and English language competence, they may see no reason, or also no way for them to find further, more academic sources for their work. I don’t think a ‘one size fits all’ explanation works here, and each teacher will know their own students and the potential traps or hurdles they might face. From my own experience and a few stories from colleagues, I can share the following possible dangers of Wikipedia for EAP or EFL students:

– Some students use it somehow as a translation tool, believing that the article on their research topic in their native language is simply a translation of the English article. This, as you can imagine, can cause all sorts of problems, and can make students’ essays practically unreadable!

– Some students see the fact that there is no author stated as a free ticket to copy and paste as much as they like (–> “It’s not plagiarism because I haven’t stolen another author’s work” !!) [Note: I have only experienced this with students who have a weak understanding of plagiarism anyway, and who come from a culture where it is regarded somehow as less serious.]

– Some students, perhaps those really new to academic study in a culture that values critical thinking and students’ own voice in their writing, believe that the summary of published research provided by Wikipedia is so good (i.e. it makes the key concepts in the area clear to them as non-experts) that they don’t need to read the original sources and can ‘blindly’ trust Wikipedia to give them the information that they need.

– Some, perhaps lower-level, EAP or EFL students may be impressed by how ‘well written’ the Wikipedia article is and think that they could never hope to do a better job, especially with their limited language skills, and therefore end up over-relying on the wording of the Wikipedia text when writing their own work.

– It may be hard for some students to find academic sources such as journal articles due to limited vocabulary: in order to use a library catalogue or search a digital article database successfully, it is helpful to know a few key items of vocabulary on your topic, but also synonyms for these words that might also have been used in titles or tags – this may represent a challenge for EAP students.

– Some EAP students understand (sole?) the purpose of their EAP classes to be improving their English language skills, and not study-skills which they intend to learn within their degree subject/discipline. Therefore, they prioritise the actual writing of their essay (for example) over doing sound, academic research, when it comes to assignments for their EAP classes. It may be the case that they know how to research properly and that Wikipedia is perhaps not ideal as a source, but for these ‘minor’ (?) assignments which will usually not count towards their grades, they choose to take the ‘easy route’ when researching, and concentrate on writing an essay in their best English.

 

Reading this list of students’ difficulties, mistakes and misunderstandings highlights once again, I think, the actual root cause of the problem: Lack of Understanding. Some of the points above bear witness to some students’ misunderstanding of the aims of academic work as ‘knowledge gathering’, rather than striving to understand arguments and engage with the evidence in order to critically assess it. Moreover, they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what Wikipedia is and aims to do. That is the point that I also wanted to make in my first blog post on the topic – that it is important to know what Wikipedia is and to use it accordingly. You can find the previous post explaining that here.) EAP tutors have an important role to play in nurturing this understanding; especially if working with students from academic cultures and traditions where critical thinking is perhaps not stressed as strongly as in Anglo-American academia.

In an ideal world, then, perhaps we as teachers would not be banning Wikipedia with no explanation of why, but bringing Wikipedia into the classroom and encouraging our students to explore, and critically assess its usefulness and limitations for their work. I would say that Wikipedia is perhaps even more useful as a research starting point for EAP students than for native or proficient English speakers, as they can use the article not only as an introduction to the topic, but also to the vocabulary and language used to talk about the topic. Once they have encountered these vocabulary and langauge items in the Wikipedia article and understood them in context, they will be in a better position to access and comprehend academic sources on the topic of their research.  In fact, EAP tutors could even plan to employ Wikipedia articles in this way – though introductory text-books also do the job of introducing vocab, they don’t open the door for the discussion on using Wikipedia in academic work; and that, to me, seems to be the key aim that has emerged from my ponderings and posts on the role of Wikipedia in academic writing. 

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