Wikipedia Aims Higher

July 11, 2011

BOSTON — The United States’ foremost custodian of public records had advice for professors whose colleagues still turn up their noses at Wikipedia.

"If all else fails, you can tell them, 'If it’s good enough for the archivist of the United States,' " said David Ferriero, who was appointed to the post in 2009, " 'we should at least take a look at it on campus.' "

Five years ago, many professors had pegged Wikipedia as a pariah. Now, four years into its first coordinated effort to recruit professors and students to its cause, Wikipedia’s overseers believe they have successful recast the free, publicly edited encyclopedia as an ally of respectable scholarship.

Two dozen universities now have courses where students are working on Wikipedia as part of their formal coursework. Many of those campuses have “Wikipedia ambassadors” tasked with helping professors weave writing and editing Wikipedia entries into the syllabus. Even Ferriero’s office at the National Archives and Records Administration now employs a “Wikipedian in residence” in charge of fostering relationships with galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

Late last week, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the encyclopedia, took another step toward assuming the mantle of an accessory of higher education: it held an academic conference. The first-ever Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit convened professors who had incorporated Wikipedia into their teaching, as well as others who were considering doing so, to talk about pros and cons of assigning students to improve the publicly edited online encyclopedia.

The foundation also made it clear that Wikipedia plans to expand its relationship with academe.

When the foundation started recruiting professors several years ago for its Public Policy Initiative — an effort to improve articles relating the U.S. public policy — it already had its eye set on developing "mechanisms and systems that would enable us to systematically improve the coverage of any topic area," said Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikimedia.

The assembled "Wikipedians" got a glimpse of some of those mechanisms on Friday.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University unveiled a set of new software tools aimed at making it easier for professors to assign and evaluate Wikipedia-related assignments. The software, which would be free, allows professors to track and quantify the modifications students make to existing articles.

The Carnegie Mellon team also unveiled a tool that would allow scholars to evaluate existing articles in their disciplines and identify gaps in coverage. The idea would be for professors to be able to browse and rate articles on topics in their field. That way, when a professor wants to assign her students various articles to work on, she can see which ones need help, which have already been improved, and which are missing. Thus the software would enable professors to systematically to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of their disciplines — using students.

"Every single discipline is open for this," said LiAnna Davis, a spokeswoman for Wikimedia. "We wanted to start with something small and something that we could figure out how this could work in one discipline area. ...We have professors here from English departments, science departments, political science. …We’re definitely looking to expand beyond public policy for the forthcoming terms."

Data from the Public Policy Initiative suggest that students tend to produce relatively high-quality work. Public policy entries improved markedly after students worked on them, according to a preliminary analysis by the Wikimedia Foundation. The foundation says it plans to publish its findings once they can be vetted more thoroughly.

In the meantime, foundation officials trotted out some exemplary entries that students had worked to improve. For example, an entry on the Food Safety Protection Act had only one citation before a Syrcause University undergrad was assigned to work on it. Now it has 20. Another article, on U.S. nuclear energy policy, did not exist before a Western Carolina University graduate student created it. His entry has 74 citations.

It also has been viewed 724 times in the last 30 days. Beyond grades, the fact that students are producing work that will be scrutinized by the public, not just a professor, heightens the incentive to do good work, several professors noted. Several reported that their students sent links to their entries to their parents — something they never did with papers.

But public scrutiny can be a double-edged sword, some professors noted. And acclimatizing students to the social and technical aspects of working on Wikipedia can be a “time-suck,” and might force professors to jettison parts of the syllabus more directly relevant to mastering course material.

Byron Spice, a professor at Texas Southern University, said his students became discouraged when their contributions were swiftly deleted by faceless redactors, sometimes without explanation.

Kasey Baker, the Western Carolina graduate student who wrote the U.S. nuclear policy article that Wikimedia officials had held up as exemplary, said he had to fight to keep strangers from hacking it apart. “That page was tried to be taken down four times, or merged with four other very separate things,” Baker said. “And the only reason it wasn’t is because I had three mentors, who had much higher administrative privileges, jumping on my side.” (Any visitor to Wikipedia can edit entries, but certain users are empowered to rule on disputes.)

Sometimes it is not enough to have good sources, writing, and organization, he said. In order to fend off other would-be editors, sometimes "you have to be kind of a dick."

But Steve Loordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said developing thick skin and sharp elbows is something students ought to learn — and something professors often neglect to teach.

"A big part of the formative part of the assignment is to think about these things, self-reflect, look at your own work — all these metacognitive process that we have such a hard time teaching — and in this case actually defend yourself, I think that is fantastic," said Loordens.

Students will face similar contravention in graduate school as well as in the boardroom and many other post-graduate contexts, he said later in an interview. The comers will not always play by the rules of academic conduct, Loordens said, and students would do well to learn to fend them off with evidence — and, if necessary, resort to arbitration.

Professors also identified another, more fundamental drawback: preparing students to complete Wikipedia assignments takes time that might otherwise have been spent on learning additional content. "It is going take time for… students who are less tech-savvy to be able to move on," said Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science and public policy at Western Carolina.

Cooper said he did have to sacrifice parts of his syllabus and devote about two full class periods to teaching students the technical ins and outs of writing and editing in Wikipedia and communicating with other editors. Some students told him they would have liked more than that.

Jon Beasley-Murray, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of British Columbia, said he underestimated the extent to which students would need to be taught how to write a good encyclopedia entry. "In the classroom, at least in the classes I teach, the kind of writing you want students to be doing is different," he said. "On the one hand, you’re looking for critique and analysis. In the Wikipedia project, you’re looking for synthesis of information."

Beasley-Murray, who admits, in retrospect, to having set his own expectations of quality too high, said the amount of time he spent with students on their Wikipedia entries forced him to cancel the final paper. "I was a little bit conflicted about that," he said, because "this was a class in 20th century Latin American literature.… It wasn’t a class about Wikipedia."

Still, the real-world impact of his students’ work was hard to ignore. One of his students wrote the Wikipedia entry for the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. A year later, Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature, sending curious readers flocking to the Web to learn more about the writer. "That day," Beasley-Murray said, "120,000 people read what my student had written."

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