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Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?

Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?

March 12, 2009

Several years ago I started asking students in my composition classes to compose entries for Wikipedia. Most of my students were familiar with Wikipedia as the most popular link at the top of a Web page after a Google search. But my purpose in bringing Wikipedia in to the classroom was not to use Wikipedia as a reference source; instead, I sought to bring a more authentic, immediate audience for student writing.

A little more than two years ago, this publication gave the story of the then typical higher education reaction to the use of Wikipedia in student writing, entitled “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” The story was centered on Middlebury's history department, but it could have spoken for academe's attitude in general. The message from faculty was clear: “Students, you cite Wikipedia at your peril.” While the article was nuanced enough to report that there was no outright ban of Wikipedia, but rather more a word of caution to students who didn't seem to understand the difference between a reviewed source and an open source -- or even an encyclopedia and primary source -- it elicited capricious screeds from readers like “Jim”:

BRAVO!!! I stand up and applaud at the professors who discourage Wikipedia being used. They are [sic] NOT, repeat, NOT, a valid source! They [sic] are loaded with so much wrong information, you would stand a better chance asking a complete stranger on the street about the same topic [. . .] As my students will tell you, if you site [sic] Wikipedia on ANY assignment, you WILL receive an F! Plus, I will take a point away for each source listed. Not only do you fail that assignment - you do get a chance to make up, but at a lower grade, but your overall grade will drop one point for each source you took from Wikipedia! We need to stand together, and teach these kids not to believe what just ANYONE tells them, including Wikipedia articles!

My purpose here is not to debate with Jim whether or not Wikipedia is an accurate resource. For those who are interested in that topic, I would refer you to the Nature study which found that while Wikipedia was less accurate that Encyclopædia Britannica online in its science entries, the aggregate difference in accuracy was not so large as to rule out the use of Wikipedia as a valid source for most readers (and there is no debate that Wikipedia is a vastly more comprehensive source and better able to update itself). No matter how counter-intuitive it might seem that an open source which anyone can edit would provide, on the whole, useful information, it is simply the case. And accepting the fact that a completely open source could render useful information is the price of admission for the ideas which will follow in this article. Useful information for a heart surgeon about to operate on you? Certainly not. Useful information for a general introduction to a topic? Certainly so.

Jim's reaction is fruitful to us as teachers in higher education because it provides a clearer picture of what the college classroom looks like for a contemporary student, who must use the wide range of information tools available to us all in a networked society. A few simple notions of information literacy could handle this teaching moment - such as explaining the role and nature of an encyclopedic source in a student research paper - but Jim's reaction is akin to decrying the advent of the telephone. Clearly, students shouldn't use telephones, since inaccurate information could be passed on them. We'll just ban the use of telephones in gathering information for our courses, penalize our students for using them, and later wonder why they seem under-prepared to succeed in a world dependent on the use of telephones. One can scarcely imagine the cognitive dissonance Internet native students still suffer in higher education, but comments like Jim's help us understand just how bad the problem might be.

While Jim's statement is indicative of how we have previously conceptualized the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, a little more than a year later another article appeared herein as a better indicator of where we might be headed. Mark A. Wilson penned “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” an article which understood Wikipedia as an online intellectual exchange. Acknowledging Wikipedia's challenges with verifying the accuracy and relevance of contributions, Wilson encouraged scholars to join Wikipedia's online intellectual community to broaden and sharpen its discourse.

I write today, however, to ask you to consider making Wikipedia a project not only for the teachers of higher education, but for your students as well. In 2004, I started asking students in my composition classes to write for Wikipedia and developed an assignment I still use today. Working in teams or alone, students choose a film page for editing. Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.

With an understanding of what kinds of knowledge “count” in Wikipedia, and what might improve a particular film page, we then compose contributions to individual pages. As a class we then observe how Wikipedians react to our contributions and get advice from each other to develop effective rhetorical strategies before we respond to our audience online. Lastly, students are asked to compose an essay where they reflect on the experience of writing for this large audience, and how the experience fails or succeeds in helping them to develop their writing skills. Their grade is determined mainly by their participation in these offline writing assignments, and not the text contributed to Wikipedia itself. (For those who are interested, the theory and practice of these writing assignments are more fully outlined in my new book, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.)

Teaching writing with Wikipedia has several advantages which serve to complement the traditional college essay. When teaching writing with Wikipedia, the audience is real and, often, writes back immediately.

One of the foremost problems in teaching writing in the college classroom is helping students gain a more profound concept of audience. Trained for years to write answers to short questions in text books, while writing fewer and fewer essays in high school, students often come to college first-year composition without much appreciation for the fact that real humans read their writing. Wikipedia changes this writing environment, and students are often shocked when Wikipedians respond to their contributions with a critical eye. Sometimes those responses are polite, and sometimes, not, but they are mostly accurate and engaging.

This puts the writing teacher in the role of assisting students in making meaning for an audience with their text - something surprisingly elusive. Teaching writing for Wikipedia audiences points up the fact that the standard arrangement in the writing classroom, where the teacher stands in as a surrogate for a fictional, idealized, audience, is painfully inauthentic and yields predictable results. I can tell students that they should not write for me personally, but as long as I alone evaluate their writing, I cannot remove my subjectivity entirely from the assessment process - and they know this. Which explains why, when my writers find out I am a Red Sox fan, essays on the merits of Georgia's HOPE scholarship might include casual references to Big Papi or Josh Beckett.

Of course, not all of the assignments in my class are based in electronic networks. Many students need the one-on-one framework of the writing teacher alone reading his or her work before the challenge of a larger audience, and there will always be a role in the writing classroom for writing topics which are more abstract than the audience of Wikipedia would want to read. Thus assignments during the semester are ordered so as to increase the number of readers in the audience for the students' work, starting with the only the writing teacher and ending with the world.

Wikipedia writing assignments also offer us the chance to consider student writers' responsibilities in topic selection. Most traditional writing assignments are narrowly prescribed, and would make little sense to readers beyond the classroom who didn't have access to assigned readings and or academic questions. Wikipedia writing assignments require greater autonomy. Students are asked to translate their knowledge for a general audience. Making this connection involves “laziness” (to appropriate a term from hacking culture), or the ability to identify our individual passions within the framework of the project's needs. For example, students who write for Wikipedia film pages as described above are free to write on most any film, but they have to also evaluate the needs of the Wikipedia page with very specific measures before writing. Wikipedia writing assignments are therefore more honest; rather than handing writers a set of constraints for composition, such as compare and contrast the role of melancholy in “The Raven” to “A Cask of Amontillado,” writers have to think through what an audience might want to know about a given topic.

Composition assignments in Wikipedia frame writing as a collaborative practice hosted within a network. This arrangement seems much more predictive of the environment our students will find themselves writing in after they leave the composition classroom, both in later college courses (as they collaborate across networks with fellow students in coursework) or in the workplace (as they collaborate with co-workers to prepare reports, proposals, or Web pages).

What's more, writers in electronic networks learn to write in an environment where their creativity is the scarcest resource. In describing the controlling dynamic of collaborative writing on the Internet, or Commons-Based Peer Production, theorist Yochai Benkler notes that in an industrialized society where the cost of printing is extremely low (most anyone can gain access to a word processor in a public library) and the cost of publication is similarly low (again, the cost of a library card), that for topics where all information is publicly accessible, the sole remaining scarce resource is human creativity. This simple but profound truth of the information age economy means a big stage for student writers. They intuitively understand that rather than only consume knowledge, they are helping to create it by writing for Wikipedia. Which is exactly the role their college educations are preparing them to fill.

But it's not only college writing which works on Wikipedia. After hearing about my class, a colleague in Biology recently created a class assignment where his students created a page in Wikipedia to define Dictyostelium discoideum. And we're not alone. Though some Wikipedians debate whether it is appropriate to use Wikipedia as an assignment space, there is a rapidly growing community of college instructors who are doing just that.

And what has been surprising in students' attitudes toward Wikipedia? Though my evidence is anecdotal, in the years of teaching with Wikipedia I have found almost no difference in the range of opinions about Wikipedia held by student writers and those held by their - mostly - older teachers. I find that roughly the same proportion of people have concerns about reliability, open access, and information literacy among students and faculty, just as I find roughly the same number of enthusiastic adopters among teachers and students. But when I query reluctant students about how and where they formed their negative opinions about Wikipedia, they usually point to a classroom environment where they were penalized for using it as a source. They almost never have had an experience which encouraged them to move from simply using Wikipedia to writing for it. As we move from seeing Wikipedia as only a resource to an online intellectual community, students are more than ready to accompany us.

Bio

Robert E. Cummings is assistant professor of English and director of First-Year Composition Program at Columbus State University, in Georgia. His new book is Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (Vanderbilt University Press).

 

 

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