When Wikipedia Is the Assignment

A professor and a technology specialist discuss their attempt to bring term papers out into the open with the resource many faculty members abhor.
October 29, 2007

Wikipedia: time-saver for students, bane of professors everywhere.

Or is it?

If there's one place where scholars should be able to question assumptions about the use of technology in the classroom (and outside of it), it's the annual Educause conference, which wrapped up on Friday in Seattle. At a morning session featuring a professor and a specialist in learning technology from the University of Washington at Bothell, presenters showed how Wikipedia -- often viewed warily by educators who worry that students too readily accept unverifiable information they find online -- can be marshaled as a central component of a course's syllabus rather than viewed as a resource to be banned or reluctantly tolerated.

That's what Martha Groom, a professor at the university's Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences program, tried to do for the first time last fall by requiring term papers to be submitted to the popular, user-edited online encyclopedia. The project comes at a time when instructors and administrators continue to debate the boundaries of certain technologies within the classroom and how to adapt to students' existing online habits.

At first glance, a college term paper and a Wikipedia entry appear to have little in common. Term papers are intended for an "extremely limited audience, namely, me," as Groom pointed out, they have little impact outside of the classroom and are constrained to a specific "time" and "place" in the world of ink-on-paper documents. "That is not a very good model of scholarship, to say that anything you produce [belongs] in this tiny space," she said.

On the other hand, shared, public online documents have characteristics in common with parts of the academic review process. "The shift to thinking about placing the term paper as a Wikipedia encyclopedia entry allows for another level of peer review," Groom said. Such entries have references and citations; allow for a process of repeated, continual editing; and encourage collaborations between authors.

They also reach a much wider audience, through the Wikipedia site and search engines. "How do you motivate students to do their best work?" she asked -- implying that the answer lies in the possibility of others viewing it. The public nature of Wikipedia content also means that, in theory, students would be less likely to reuse others' material as their own.

"[The Wikipedia guidelines] very clearly state that ... the onus is on you, not on them, so you’ll be the one who catches anything if you [post] any copyrighted material," said Andreas Brockhaus, the manager of learning technologies at the university.

Groom's first attempt at incorporating Wikipedia into a class came in the fall of 2006, when she required her students to make a major revision to an existing article or to create one of their own, with a minimum of 1,500 words, for 60 percent of the grade. The assignment, for her course on environmental history and globalization, encompassed an initial proposal, a first draft, revisions and peer review, after which students would post the final article to the Web site. For the next semester, and after student feedback, Groom decided to lower the weight of the assignment (to 40 percent of the grade) and have students work in groups.

She first required her students to complete Wikipedia's online tutorial, which takes users through the basic steps of creating an account, editing articles and participating in discussions. But learning how to use Wikipedia didn't necessarily pose the biggest obstacle. Some students, used to sustaining arguments in papers and essays, had trouble adapting to the Wikipedia style, Brockhaus said.

"How do you write for an encyclopedia?" he asked, referring to the site's consensus-based model that values a neutral tone over strict balance and places and emphasis on non-original, verifiable sources. For example, an article on evolution wouldn't grant equal space to intelligent design because of existing scientific and scholarly agreement. (Not coincidentally, this is the standard used by most academics in their scholarship and teaching.)

Not used to being edited on the fly by people they've never met, some students might also have felt uneasy about another feature inherent to Wikipedia's design: constant revisions by regular contributors. Brockhaus suggested that was part of the experience, and that students posting material to the site would have to stop viewing their work as "sacrosanct."

But being subject to editing led to a potential problem: Wikipedia editors didn't find some of the students' articles relevant enough to warrant their own topics. They were either deleted or merged with existing articles. That reality is in part a function of Wikipedia's vast breadth, which already covers virtually any topic in which there is sufficient public knowledge.

At the same time, Groom felt that after her two experiments were over, it was clear that she needed her students to publish to Wikipedia earlier in the process rather than go through their revisions offline, so to speak, before uploading the entry a single time. Doing so would also take better advantage of the collaborative nature of the site itself.

Still, most students found the exercise worthwhile. Groom showed a slide (the presentation is in PowerPoint format here) with a comment from one of her students, who wrote, "This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research." An assignment on deforestation during the Roman period, for example, is now the first result on a Google search for the topic.

There was another positive effect on her students' work, Groom said: their assignments were generally better written.


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