"Class, it's time for your test on our study of Africa. Number a paper from 1 to 50. I am projecting a map of Africa on the screen. For number 1, write the name of the country and its capital. Do the same thing for each of the other numbers. You have 30 minutes to fill in all the country names and capitals."
That was how my junior high school social studies teacher in Lawrence, Kansas, tested my knowledge of Africa in the early 1960s. Being good at memorizing information, I was able to score a top grade on that test. You might recall that Africa at that time had many British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies. Since I took that test, many of the names have changed and new boundaries have been drawn.
I don't remember learning a lot about the people in these places and how South Africa might differ from Egypt, being at opposite ends of the continent. We learned some basic things—that oil came from Nigeria and diamonds from South Africa and that pyramids were in Egypt. But had no sense of the diverse peoples, history, terrain, or religious issues on this large continent.
A few years later, I read some books by Alan Paton, the South African author of Cry, the Beloved Country (Scribners, 1948). A warden in a South African prison, Paton provided many insights into the racial tension there. I gained some understanding of the tension between the colonizers and the colonized, and between the rural and urban communities, and a sense of life in South Africa in 1948, the year that apartheid was made a law.
Today, if I were teaching that social studies class, I would want to challenge my students to use 21st century thinking techniques and the technology at their fingertips. I might ask them to read a novel by a 20th century African author, something like Cry, the Beloved Country or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Heinemann, 1958), to promote a richer understanding. I would want to encourage critical thinking and knowledge construction. But most of all, I would want my students to connect with students and teachers in the places we were studying. The Internet makes such connections easier than ever before.
The Evolving Encyclopedia
When I was a student, we used encyclopedias in the library. It was a challenge to share 26 volumes among 30 students. Ten years ago, when he was in middle school, my son became a power user of Encarta, which was initially a CD-ROM multimedia encyclopedia with links to authoritative sources and later became an online encyclopedia with the same features. In March 2009, the
New York Times
reported that Microsoft was no longer supporting Encarta, in light of Wikipedia's massive reach among users. (Cohen, 2009). The Times article reported that in January 2009, Wikipedia got 97 percent of the visits to online encyclopedias from U.S. Web surfers. Encarta ranked second, with 1.27 percent of visits. How can teachers best use this new information source in the classroom?
Some educators prohibit their students from looking at Wikipedia. Others would say that telling students not to use Wikipedia is like telling them not to breathe. I believe that it's essential to show students how Wikipedia is constructed so they understand its strengths and limitations. A
study published in Nature magazine
found that the accuracy of articles in Wikipedia was comparable to that of equivalent articles in
Encyclopedia Britannica (Giles, 2005). Yet Wikipedia users must also be cautioned by the experience of
John Seigenthaler, who for 132 days was falsely mentioned on Wikipedia as possibly being involved in the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy (Seigenthaler, 2005).
Students need to see Wikipedia entries that have warnings like this:
This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding reliable references (ideally, using inline citations). Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.
Students also need to see that some entries lack corroborating facts and might even be subject to malicious editing. They need to compare earlier versions of the same entry with later ones, to see how refinements and additions helped to build a better entry on the topic.
A 4th grade teacher in New York assigned students to read
Charlotte's Web. Students examined the Wikipedia entry about the book and found errors and omissions. Working in small groups, they proposed changes to Wikipedia to improve the entry (Edinger, 2006).
Students could also contribute by finding content about their town, region, nearby attractions, or school on Wikipedia and providing new content or edits to existing entries on these topics as a character in
this recent Baldo comic did. This type of assignment not only demonstrates far more learning than responding to a multiple-choice question but also engages students in contributing to the larger pool of knowledge.
Global Information Sources
When I was in college, shortly after the CIA declassified the content, I first used the World Factbook, a rich source of data about all the countries of the world. Today the CIA World Factbook is available online and is updated every two weeks. Students can mine Factbook data for answers to such questions as, In countries with a high birth rate, is there a lower rate of literacy among females? What conditions exist in countries with a low life expectancy? With a high life expectancy? What other country besides your own has qualities that would make it an appealing place to live?
Students can then use this information to update Wikipedia entries. They could begin by reading about Africa in their textbooks and posing questions about what might still be true and what might have changed since the textbook was published. Then they can check some of the information in the Factbook. Once they have this information, they can critically read and analyze the Wikipedia entry on that country, making changes if needed.
Another important source of information about other nations is people who have lived there or who live there now. The Peace Corps can connect educators to volunteers who have returned to the United States. or who are currently serving overseas. These volunteers could speak to your class, answer e-mailed questions, or participate in a class blog to supplement or update the class textbook.
Students can also ask questions of students their age or slightly older who live in the country. Teachers can connect students to global sources through a social learning network such as ePals (Demski, 2008; Glod, 2009).
Teachers can assign students in small groups or pairs to search
the site's list of teachers
from 200 countries and territories for a classroom with which they might connect. An automatic translator on the ePals site enables students to communicate with students in China, Korea, Japan, or other countries whose language they do not know. Students might want to look specifically for students close to their age in schools that will be in session, rather than on vacation, when they are ready to start communicating. Student groups can turn in to the teacher a set of possible matches and the questions they would like to ask.
The teacher can send the questions to the most appropriate classrooms, and students can see how the answers match the other information they've acquired. Students in the two classes could use the free
SchoolBlog to post questions and photos that they can set to be visible to the two classes only. A rich international discussion can arise from simply comparing one's school and community with that of another.
Students can also share their stories by creating documentaries about their schools, homes, and communities. For example, students in rural Senegal, working with the CyberSmart 21st Century Initiative, created these videos documenting their daily lives.
New Tools, New Techniques
Schools and teachers must be challenged to use the tools and techniques of today, not the ones of the past. Learning in the 21st century requires critical thinking, adept use of technology, and global collaboration, and we should offer all these to our students on a regular basis. Let's make the best possible uses of the new tools available to us so that our students are better prepared to participate in the global community.
Cohen, N. (2009, March 30). Microsoft Encarta dies after long battle with Wikipedia. The New York Times. Available:
Demski, J. (2008, November). E-Palling around. THE Journal. Available:
Edinger, M. (2006, October 27). Charlotte's Wikipedia. Educating Alice [Blog]. Available:
Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900–901. Available:
Glod, M. (2009, June 23). Students without borders: Online communication facilitates global collaboration at area schools. The Washington Post, p. B01. Available:
Seigenthaler, J. (2005, November 29). A false Wikipedia 'biography' [Op-ed]. USA Today. Available:
Rita Haugh Oates is Vice President for Education Markets for ePals, 601 San Lorenzo Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33146-1342. She was formerly Director of Computer Education and Technology for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
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