Wikipedia for Credit

While many professors still distrust the popular encyclopedia, some have joined a new effort in which they will work with students to improve entries.
September 7, 2010

Some professors believe Wikipedia has no place in the footnotes of a college paper. But could it have a place on the syllabus?

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that does fund-raising and back-end support for the popular open-source encyclopedia, says yes. So do the nine professors at prominent colleges who have agreed to make creating, augmenting, and editing Wikipedia entries part of their students’ coursework.

“We’ve known for a long time that students are the fuel of Wikipedia,” said LiAnna Davis, a Wikimedia spokeswoman. “…We feel there is a place for Wikipedia in the classroom.”

“Students have access to so many journals and library materials and other scholarly materials that other people just don’t have access to,” she said.

Wikimedia’s new alliances with professors stem from its Public Policy Initiative, an effort to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of topics relating to U.S. public policy. On a grant from the Stanton Foundation, Wikimedia started recruiting public policy professors who were willing to have their students create content for Wikipedia. This fall, the foundation will help nine instructors — four at George Washington University, two at Georgetown University, and one each at Indiana University at Bloomington, Syracuse University, and Harvard University — integrate Wikipedia-related assignments into their syllabuses. (Wikimedia does not pay the professors to do this; the Stanton grant pays for foundation staff and training associated with the project.)

“The social media trend is something that students have definitely latched on to, and regardless of what everyone else thinks, they’re going to continue to be involved with it,” says Carol Ann Dwyer, a public affairs instructor at Syracuse, who is among Wikimedia’s academic recruits. “I would prefer, particularly if they’re going to become ‘Wikipedians,’ that they do it properly.”

The foundation also recruited student “ambassadors” at those colleges to serve as on-campus resources for professors and students who might be less familiar with the technical aspects of contributing to Wikipedia. It gathered the ambassadors in Washington this summer for three days of training. The foundation also recruited “online ambassadors” — experienced Wikipedia users from around the world — to serve as a second line of support, especially for students who might need help while burning the midnight oil the night before a due date.

The particular ways the professors are planning to work Wikipedia into their courses vary. The graduate students in Peter Linquiti’s policy analysis course at George Washington will be asked to pen a detailed critique of an existing entry, assessing its “credibility, intended audience, currency of content, degree of support for the information and analysis, use of policy analysis tools or concepts, extent of balance and/or bias, and any recommended changes to content, style, and tone,” according to a summary provided to Wikimedia. They will then submit appropriate edits to the entry, and then monitor those edits for a week to see what happens to those changes in the fray of editing and counter-editing that is a common byproduct of the site’s wild-west revisions policy.

Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor in the school of foreign service at Georgetown, says contributing to Wikipedia dovetails nicely with the sort of literature review and summarizing that she already has students do as part of preparing to write an argumentative paper. Davis says she plans to simply have the students in two of her classes format those summaries for Wikipedia, submit them to the site, then use that as a jumping-off point for writing a proper research paper. In this way, the process mirrors a strategy already employed by many college students, only in reverse: Instead of starting with a Wikipedia page as a nexus to find more authoritative material, the students would do research first, then consolidate their findings into a concise entry on the site.

“I’m tired of my grad students saying, ‘All we ever do is critique and discuss and deconstruct,’ ” Davis says. “So I’m going to make them create something that’s not just a thing for me to read; it’s going to go out into the community.” The fact that summarizing for Wikipedia comes with the pressure of knowing others might read and rely on their work might even prompt students to be more meticulous than they might have if the summaries were for Davis’s eyes only, she says. Several other people involved with the project made the same point.

The Tower and the Crowd

Academe historically has viewed Wikipedia, which allows any visitor to edit its entries and relies on the vigilance of volunteer fact-checkers, with a great deal of ambivalence. In 2007, the history department at Middlebury College took a stand against citing Wikipedia entries directly in papers, and many others have worried that Wikipedia sows the same moral hazard in students as Google by enabling, by virtue of its breadth and convenience, lazy research habits. A study published earlier this year in the online journal First Monday reported that more than half of college students use Wikipedia at some point in the research process either all or most of the time (though their professors might be relieved to hear that 70 percent of those students use it at or near the beginning of their research).

In recent years, academics seem to have gotten used to Wikipedia being around (and have perhaps recognized its efforts to keep out bad information), and much of the discussion has shifted to how it can be applied constructively. The professors who have partnered with Wikimedia’s Public Policy Initiative are not the first to incorporate Wikipedia into their courses — the foundation counts 59 such instances between 2007 and 2009 — and academics have certainly played a role in helping build and edit the site since it opened in 2001. The initiative does, however, represent the first time the foundation has pushed to seed a community of contributors within higher education.

“This is exciting to be sure!” wrote Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “That is a key part the mission of all of us in a higher education setting — to generate as well as disseminate knowledge in different disciplines,” Bonk wrote. “Given that Wikipedia is now central to the knowledge dissemination process as well as the linkages between content and fields, such partnerships make sense.”

But as much as the academic cloisters and the über-democratic site might have to offer each other, there remains intractable philosophical tension between the two that could foil the collaboration. Linquiti's exercise of having students track the changes made to their entries by the equally empowered masses hints at the vulnerability of their contributions. The mutability of Wikipedia entries is why Neil Waters, a history professor at Middlebury, still forbids his students from citing them. In its guidelines, Waters points out, Wikipedia instructs visitors to "Be bold in updating articles and do not worry about making mistakes” — hardly a scholarly protocol, he argues. "I want my students to worry about making mistakes, and to learn how to avoid them, and how to take responsibility for what they write," wrote Waters in an e-mail.

Alan Liu, chair of the English department at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the popular academic blog Voice of the Shuttle, noted the importance of resolving these process issues if academe wants to make its authoritative voice louder in Wikipedia. "The academic community provides a constrained and relatively standard set of protocols for constructive collaboration and refereeing that could be built on (whereas the larger global community behind Wikipedia was more problematic because there is actually no such thing as a global community with sufficiently shared motives and standards of collaboration),” wrote Liu in an e-mail.

Much remains to be hashed out between academics and the general public as far as working out such "standards of collaboration," he said, to resolve the tension between the academic value of peer review and the social media value of crowd-sourcing.

"New policies, institutional arrangements, practices, protocols, and technologies will need to be created on both sides of the divide" — between higher education and the "foundations of networked public knowledge" such as Wikipedia and Google — "to create productive and socially-good ways for experts and the crowd to teach, and learn from, each other," said Liu. As a handful of loose alliances between Wikimedia and professors, the project "does not seem complete enough."

Wikimedia says it plans to recruit 15 more professors by the spring, and hopes to expand the collaborations beyond public policy eventually. "We are trying to develop a model, a body of documentation, and some technical tools and Wikipedia community processes that will be useful around the globe and in a variety of topic areas; and we hope to set into motion something that will be self-sustaining by volunteer and academic groups," Frank Schulenburg, head of public outreach at Wikimedia, wrote in a statement. "While we are working only with U.S.-based public policy programs during the pilot program, we will also be continually seeking opportunities to engage our Wikimedia chapters, professors, students, and Wikipedians in other parts of the world and in other topic areas."

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