Wikipedia Entries: The New Term Paper

I spent HOURS on term papers.  They were well researched, well written, and well-thought out.  The electronic copies now sit in a folder on my backup hard drive.  And the physical copies?  Who knows…probably shredded years ago since the professors rarely returned the papers.

Sure that paper helped me pass that class and in turn helped me obtain a degree and yadda yadda; it was beneficial for me.  But what did I contribute to the greater good?  What did I contribute to academia or to the general record?  Nothing.

This lack of purpose is exactly why people plagiarize other papers and buy papers from websites that promise “100% original content”.  Students feel they have better things to do, more important things to do, things that matter to them or their careers.  Teachers have come up with a solution to make schoolwork less tedious and more meaningful to the students :instead of writing the traditional term paper, write detailed Wikipedia entries.

Instead of the traditional MLA or APA style formatting, students have to format their writing to adhere to Wikipedia’s Manual of Style (take a look…it’s pretty long…and thorough).  And citations?  Ani Schug and her classmates at Pomona College wrote a Wikipedia article as a term paper using “218 scholarly legal and newspaper sources”.  The article was on the “1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations for ballot initiative campaigns.”

Wikipedia has had a reputation of being full of errors, so in order to combat this image, Wikipedia (really Wikimedia) has made a push in college classrooms to have students publish content on Wikipedia.  The result has been an increase in editing articles, in the publication of new well-written articles, and most importantly, well-researched articles.

This push will trickle down into the K-12 classrooms.  Why create a random blog and publish content to just sit on the internet when you could contribute to the overall wealth of human knowledge?  Why ignore content that is 90% correct just because it could be wrong?  Don’t teach students to ignore something because it could be misleading, instead, teach them to do something about it!

—-Below is the article from the LA Times about the students at Pomona College and their use of Wikipedia in the classroom.—-

All through high school, Ani Schug was told to steer clear of Wikipedia. Her teachers talked about the popular online encyclopedia “as if it wasn’t serious or trustworthy” and suggested it only be used as a tip sheet.

Imagine her surprise this spring when her American politics professor at Pomona College assigned the class to write detailed entries for Wikipedia instead of traditional term papers.

Turns out it was a lot harder than the students anticipated. Their projects had to be researched, composed and coded to match Wikipedia’s strict protocols. Schug and her classmates wound up citing 218 scholarly legal and newspaper sources for their entry on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations for ballot initiative campaigns.

Then came the really scary step: All their work was posted publicly on Wikipedia for reading and editing by a potentially immense audience.

It makes us feel more obligated to do a good job and present the facts in an unbiased way.- Ani Schug, Pomona College student

“It felt more real that other people will be reading us besides just our group and the teacher,” said Schug, 19, who just completed her freshman year at Pomona. “It makes us feel more obligated to do a good job and present the facts in an unbiased way.”

Once the bane of teachers, Wikipedia and entry-writing exercises are becoming more common on college campuses as academia and the online site drop mutual suspicions and seek to cooperate. In at least 150 courses at colleges in the U.S. and Canada, including UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco’s medical school, Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University, students were assigned to create or expand Wikipedia entries this year.

The result, supporters say, has been better researched articles about, for example, the causes of paralyzing strokes and the history of the American West. And, they say, students are becoming better prepared for a future of digital information.

“Even the best research papers get buried in a drawer somewhere,” said Amanda Hollis-Brusky, the Pomona politics professor who assigned the Wikipedia projects. “These make a real contribution to the public discourse.”

When the not-for-profit Wikipedia was started in 2001, the idea was that antiestablishment volunteers — in fact, anyone who could access the Internet — would write and edit its mainly anonymous entries. An unbiased truth was supposed to emerge if enough contributors took part. By contrast, traditional encyclopedias hired expert authors.

But even as its popularity soared among the public, Wikipedia earned a reputation among academics as amateurish, peppered with errors and too open to nasty online spats over content. Wikipedia has tried to repair all that with better safeguards and a wider range of topics.

As part of that effort, Wikipedia has established a San Francisco educational arm that helps colleges tailor class assignments to the site’s technical demands. It trains “Wikipedia Ambassadors” like Char Booth, the Claremont Colleges librarian who aided the Pomona class.

Wikipedia “gets well-written articles from [college] students who are studying the topics and have access to the best literature on the subject and the expertise of professors who can guide them as well,” said LiAnna Davis, a spokeswoman for the Wiki Education Foundation.

Pomona professor Hollis-Brusky and Booth taught students to meet the requirements of tight writing, neutral tone and abundant citations for their projects on such topics as theFederalist Papers , diamond importing laws and the electoral reform group FairVote. The student groups presented their research to the class and displayed their Wikipedia pages on a large screen in a Hahn Hall classroom. The Supreme Court case entry showed that it had attracted about 2,000 viewers in a month.

Even with complaints of mistakes and incompleteness, Wikipedia has a powerful reach. Often the first site suggested by Google searches, it has about 4.5 million English-language entries and 496 million visitors a month worldwide.

Wikipedia “has essentially become too large to ignore,” said Berkeley’s Kevin Gorman, a former student who is the nation’s first “Wikipedian in Residence” at an undergraduate institution.

“It is certainly an initial source of information for a huge number of people,” he said. “For many people, it may be their primary source of information.”

Gorman guides students who are composing Wiki entries as assignments in UC Berkeley’s American Cultures program — requiring classes that deal with ethnic and economic diversity.

Gorman said it is important to expand the ranks of Wikipedia authors and editors beyond its early base of “basically techno, libertarian, white dudes.”

Further symbolizing peace with academia, professional scholarly organizations in sociology, psychological science and communications in recent years have urged members to write Wikipedia articles and to assign students to do so. Other efforts include Wikipedia-writing marathons, such as one sponsored by CalArts’ online magazine, East of Borneo, that focused on topics about the Southern California art world.

Gorman also works with UC San Francisco’s medical school, where professor Amin Azzam runs a month-long elective class for students to improve Wikipedia’s medical information. In the first such class at an American medical school, students have started or revised pages about hepatitis, dementia and alcohol withdrawal syndrome, among others, Azzam said.

The assignments, he explained, are part of young doctors’ “social contract to do good in the world and help patients” learn about health.

In revising and broadening the entry on strokes, medical student Andrew Callen experienced Wikipedia’s argumentative nature. A Wikipedia medical editor, apparently a physician, challenged some of Callen’s technical terminology.

Callen said his language was more precise but conceded after some back and forth that the distinction was not important for lay readers.

“I didn’t take offense at it,” he said. “In a way I appreciated it.”

Writing for Wikipedia, Callen said, is a good way to improve the explanation of complicated science to patients.”The more people we can get to edit it, the more accurate the information will be,” he added.

Some skepticism remains.

Doug Hesse, vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English, said Wikipedia’s understandable insistence on neutrality doesn’t allow students to make reasoned arguments and analysis in term papers.

And its reliance on published sources eliminates students’ independent interviews, experiments and research, said Hesse, who heads the University of Denver’s writing program.

At Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, professor of human-computer interaction Robert Kraut has assigned classes to compose Wikipedia chapters in psychology. Students have benefited, he said, but he, too, doesn’t think such assignments will become commonplace.

Compared to regular term papers, Wiki entries require a lot more faculty time to ensure they are ready for online viewing. Some colleges may be put off by the public editing, which Kraut said led to some of his students’ writings getting excised for not following what he considered to be very complicated footnoting rules.

In Pomona College’s politics class, there was no nasty flaming on any class projects, which counted for 35% of the students’ grades, according to Hollis-Brusky. (Most Wikipedia authors use pseudonyms and the Pomona students were urged to do the same to avoid possible privacy violations.)

Freshman Lane Miles, who worked on the FairVote research, said it was doubly satisfying to help build the online encyclopedia. “We are educating ourselves and educating others,” he said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com
Twitter: @larrygordonlat

 

Wikipedia: How to Use It in the Classroom

You really should use Wikipedia in the classroom.

Seriously.

Wikipedia should not be the website version of “he who shall not be named”.  It is widely known that telling someone not to do something only fuels the desire to want to do the “forbidden” behavior.  So, if we don’t want students to use Wikipedia for research because it is inaccurate, we cannot simply tell students to stay away.  We have to show them.  We have to have them do something with Wikipedia for them to realize its potential and its weaknesses.

There are several ways teachers can show students the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.  The first is a scavenger hunt.  It may take some time to develop the worksheet of inaccuracies; however, it will teach students lessons about Wikipedia far quicker than you can telling them.  You can find which pages have inaccuracies by asking Twitter followers, Googling “inaccuracy examples of Wikipedia” or something similar, or by the old-fashioned reading and checking.

The first part of the hunt should have students working (individually) searching Wikipedia for the answers to questions (but they don’t know the answers are inaccurate yet!).  The next day, after collecting the Wikipedia worksheet, hand out another worksheet with the same questions, only the students cannot use Wikipedia; they must find another source.  You can give them a list of specific main sites to pick from to ensure accuracy.  The next day, pass back the Wikipedia worksheet and discuss why/how come there are differences.  A variation on this scavenger hunt could require students to search an obscure topic in which the Wikipedia page and its references are the jumping off point for the questions.

Other ideas come from an article, “How To: Use Wikipedia in the Classroom Responsibly” by Adam Heckler (@adamvartek) on Fractus Learning; it was published on May 13, 2013.

  1. Learn the Rules
  2. Create an Assignment
  3. Choose an Article
  4. Edit, Edit, and Edit
  5. Evaluate Student Work

Learn the Rules – Despite what you make think, Wikipedia isn’t a free-for-all.  They have rules, listed on their Key Policies and Guidelines page.  Heckler sums them up:

  • Free content: All content submitted to Wikipedia must be original, since it will become part of the commons. Copying and pasting from other sources is a no-no.
  • Reliable sources: Third-party sources are required for all claims. They need to have a sturdy reputation for fact-checking and accuracy (e.g., academic journals).
  • NPOV: Short for neutral point of view, this means that all articles should be written without bias. Argumentative stances and outright advocacy are not allowed.
  • Good faith: Respect your fellow editors, and assume they’re acting in good faith. That is, avoid accusing others of deliberate malice just because you disagree.
  • Notability: When deciding whether or not to write about a certain topic, Wikipedia generally considers an article justified if the topic has been covered by a third-party.

Create an Assignment – Since Wikipedia is “riddled with mistakes”  and pretty much anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry…why not teach students how to use a wiki by copy-editing inaccurate Wikipedia entries rather than creating some fictitious wiki that will be abandoned after the class finishes?  Working on an assignment for Wikipedia is an obvious, real-world connection students can see and do right now.  They are contributing to finding accurate information, deleting inaccurate information, adding to the wealth of common knowledge, and can pick any topic they find interesting.  Teachers can even have students present their edited entries to the class to practice speaking and listening skills as well.

Have a student who is bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual?  Awesome!  There are an abundance of articles that need to be translated.  Wikipedia has a list of articles that need to be translated from a foreign language to English and a list of articles that have been translated…but not very well and need some cleaning up.  Have students who can’t seem to put their phone down because they are taking pictures and video for their Instagram or Vines?  There are many articles that need media created.  Give them a photo or video assignment.

If you need direction on which articles to pick, Wikipedia has lists of articles that need photos, need videos, and need copy editing.  Don’t forget Wikipedia has a guide to assist students with the copy editing process.

Okay–so once you’ve narrowed down your topic or focus, how do you pick a “good article” to edit?  Heckler has some great pointers:

  • Start with “stub” articles. Stubs are articles that are too short to be fully encyclopedic. You can find a list of them at this link. There are thousands of stubs, so your students should have no problem finding something to improve.
  • Progress to start-class articles. These articles are little more than stubs, but could also use a significant amount of work.
  • Try finding subjects that students know a lot about but that don’t have lengthy articles on Wikipedia yet. This helps them create new pages at length.

What to avoid:

  • Editing articles that are rated as “Featured” or another higher rating class. These kinds of pages are more difficult to improve effectively for inexperienced editors.
  • Editing articles on controversial subjects. Just use common sense!
  • Creating articles on topics not often covered by third-party literature.

Type of Writing – Make sure to remind students that Wikipedia entries are factual and unbiased.  They may be tempted or default to writing persuasively, so it is important to let them work on their own, but help point out something that is too persuasive.

Evaluate – There are a multitude of evaluation methods that can be used.  My favorite is having a rubric in which I can circle the grade (not just 1-5, but explanations of what 1-5 mean and the differences between each number) to assist in a quick evaluation during a short presentation to the class [read more about rubrics].  The presentation would include displaying the final product, the process/methods the student used, areas of issues/problems/trouble, areas of “genius moments” and a reflective statement on what the student would do differently next time.  The student would also hand in a 1-2 page reflection essay with this information written down so I can review it later when I have more time.

Wikipedia has several great uses in the classroom.  It may not be the end-all-be-all for research because of the high probability of incorrect information; however, Wikipedia can only get better with more edits, more media, and more translations.  It seems silly to have students create a class wiki about nothing that will be discarded after the end of the term.  From what I’ve read so far, the Common Core desires real-life connections, solving real-world issues, focusing on speaking and learning, writing informative text, and reading more non-fiction texts.  Using Wikipedia in the classroom, checks all those boxes.