Wikipedia is now the 5th most visited website in the world (right behind heavy hitters like Google Search and Facebook). The beautiful (and sometimes horrifying) thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute. Right now, you could stop reading this post, go to Wikipedia, and edit the article about long-eared hedgehogs to say that they prefer a diet of Fruit Loops and Nutella. You don’t even need an account. That kind of openness has obvious pitfalls, as any professor with a ban on Wikipedia research can attest. However, based on some personal experience, I think there are at least three reasons why professors should consider embracing rather than discouraging Wikipedia in the classroom.
It’s (probably) not as bad as you think
Although anyone can create or edit any Wikipedia article, unless new content meets some stringent guidelines of neutrality and verifiable accuracy, the changes are unlikely to last long thanks to the enforcement of fellow Wikipedia editors. The use of reputable source citations is a particular sticking point with many Wikipedia editors. I have seen new edits erased by other Wikipedia editors within seconds. The back-and-forth world behind a Wikipedia article can be found in the “View history” and “Talk” tabs at the top of every article. Take a look at these and tell me that many of Wikipedia’s articles (especially the most popular ones) are not the product of as much rigor as peer-reviewed journal articles. Interestingly and somewhat circularly, Wikipedia contains a well-balanced and informative article about its own reliability.
Teaching the grain of salt
Ok. Let’s say it is as bad as you think, at least some of the time. Sometimes it really is really bad. How would a student know? Given its popularity (you know they use it anyway), how can a student assess the credibility of information from Wikipedia? Our fabulous Central College librarians teach information literacy, including the importance of taking some information with a grain of salt. These lessons serve students well in the world of Wikipedia. Reinforcing what students have learned about critical thinking in parsing information is a great goal for just about any class, and Wikipedia provides a good platform. Students can read Wikipedia articles and verify the content with second and third sources. They can click on the “View history” and “Talk” tabs to analyze the background of an article. They can easily discover the authors and editors of articles, evaluate their online identities, and make judgments about their potential biases. At the least, Wikipedia can often be a good place to begin research on a topic, even if it is not eventually one of the sources a student cites (again, you know they do this anyway!). We can help them to use Wikipedia intelligently.
Pedagogical oomph for student writing
It is hard to get excited about writing a paper knowing that only one person will ever read it. I felt that way as a student and students at Central seem to agree. What if lots (tons!) of people around the world read your work? Would it motivate you to do more thorough research, write with more clarity, and ultimately produce a better product? Students in my Spring 2012 Psychology of Religion class found out when they became Wikipedia editors and produced their own articles as a part of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Wikipedia Initiative. The APS Initiative is only one of many that support professors from all disciplines to encourage their students to contribute to Wikipedia. This page contains masses of useful materials for educators who would like to design their own Wikipedia assignments (e.g., rubrics, wiki markup guides, and video tutorials).
The students in my Psychology of Religion class had the option of doing a traditional research paper or writing a Wikipedia article. Eight of ten chose the Wikipedia article. They were excited by the idea and I am convinced that many of them did indeed produce better products as a result. I loved that they dedicated themselves to becoming an expert in their chosen topic so that they could present themselves well to their wide audience. Their writing was not what they thought Professor Me wanted to hear – it was what they thought everyone should know about their chosen topic. In my option, this shift in perspective reflected well in the final product. One student later affirmed,
“I really enjoyed the assignment. It was a unique opportunity to contribute to a knowledge base that can be accessed by anyone worldwide. It was a creative idea from our professor that in turn encouraged creativity from us as students.”
This is not to say that my Wikipedia writing assignment was perfect. There were glitches. Worries about formatting and Wikipedia style were common. Some of the more technical aspects of creating a Wikipedia article from scratch stressed some students. As the creator of the assignment, I wish I had involved the Wikipedia community at an earlier point in the writing process instead of the articles going “live” at the end of the semester. In the face of these glitches and with the opportunity to make some tweaks, would I do a Wikipedia writing assignment again? You bet. After all, pedagogical oomph for student writing is hard to come by.
If you are interested in checking out the work of the Spring 2012 Psychology of Religion students, check out their Wikipedia course page. Note that the students’ articles continue to evolve – other Wikipedia editors have been busy this summer improving what the students began. It is a great example of Wikipedia in action.