Identifying Best Practices for Student Wikipedia Projects
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of educators assigning students the task of creating Wikipedia entries as a way of teaching them about research techniques, while at the same time involving them in the process of creating useful real-world knowledge. Now a professor has tried it out with two of her classes, and she’s reporting on some of the lessons learned.
Last week at the annual EDUCAUSE conference, Professor Martha Groom of the University of Washington-Bothell and a pair of colleagues presented on their experiences using Wikipedia entries as a replacement for term papers. Groom noted that traditional term papers were produced for an audience of one – the teacher grading the papers – and lacked any impact beyond the classroom. So she decided to have two of her classes contribute to Wikipedia instead. For her fall 2006 class that focused on the impact of globalization and the environment, students were expected to create or edit Wikipedia entries, with a minimum contribution of 1500 words. In the spring semester, a class on sustainable development required that her students form collaborative teams and create new articles, with the world length depending on the number of students participating in each team.
Students participating in the classes went through a six-stage process. After proposing a Wikipedia entry, they would author a first draft, which in turn would go through peer review by their classmates. Students would then make revisions prior to posting their entry onto Wikipedia, after which they would author a reflective essay analyzing what worked and what didn’t.
As they got into the process, students quickly hit some stumbling blocks – specifically, how to create a Wikipedia entry using its markup language, while following the norms set up by Wikipedians regarding how to write a good encyclopedia entry. Professor Groom had her students complete a Wikipedia tutorial, familiarizing them with the idiosyncrasies of the community. Students also had to learn Wikipedia’s standards for citing primary sources, referencing other entries, as well as how to select a good entry topic in the first place.
After the first semester, 34 students ended up publishing articles to Wikipedia, including Deforestation during the Roman period and Americanization of Native Americans. The second semester featured 14 group projects, including entries for Communal Wildlife Conservancies in Namibia and Renewable energy in Africa.
It didn’t take long for some Wikipedians to take issue with the students’ research. One article was deleted within 24 hours, while another four posts were removed after some debate on the website. Wikipedians occasionally responded rudely to students, and one debate escalated to the point that it required intervention by site moderators. Despite these stumbling blocks, students responded very positively to the exercise. “This assignment felt so Real!,” exclaimed one student. “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.” Said another: “Although I was really scared by this assignment, I really appreciate a chance to write something that might help someone else beyond myself.”
In her presentation, Groom made several points regarding the positive aspects of the experience. She felt her students gained perspectives on what it means to have a credible source, and the importance of rigorous citation. The peer review process “became a more purposeful effort,” while students “invested more in their work, felt greater ownership and experienced greater returns for their efforts.”
In contrast, she also noticed certain aspects of the assignments that offered room for improvement. For example, because students could make open-ended choices as to the topics they wanted to cover, this potentially contributed to a number of poor postings that couldn’t withstand scrutiny by the Wikipedia community. The timing of the process resulted in students having only one chance to publish on the site – near the end of the assignment – giving them little opportunity to learn from potential mistakes. Meanwhile, because students were so used to the notion of writing essays rather than encyclopedia entries, they could have used additional guidance in terms of understanding the differences between the two styles.
I’m very happy that Professor Groom and her colleagues have documented their experiences with Wikipedia assignments. Up until now, I’ve only seen anecdotal evidence regarding the efficacy of the concept, which makes it difficult to hone down best practices. Having reviewed their presentation, I’m not surprised that some Wikipedians responded rudely to the students’ efforts, particularly since students didn’t really participate in the Wikipedia community until it was time to publish their articles. For better or worse, Wikipedia is a quirky place, and if you dig into it, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by its politics, personalities and intellectual turf wars. While many Wikipedians welcome newcomers with open arms, others see them as intruding on their space, particularly when they make significant edits without participating in discussion threads surrounding a particular topic. The community has developed its own sets of norms and protocols, and you ignore them at your peril. Even if you write what may seem to be the perfect article, depending on the topic and how you go about posting it, you might find it doomed to the intellectual cutting room floor.
Nonetheless, I think what Professor Groom has documented is a very good start. I would probably revise the course so that students are encouraged to participate in discussions surrounding well-established entries, including ones that are controversial, so they can get a sense of what types of behaviors are tolerated. They should also spend some time making smaller edits to entries, perhaps beginning with improvements to grammar and clarity, then tracking down primary sources for citations, then helping contribute new knowledge to sub-sections of entries. These steps can help the students get a better grasp of encyclopedia entry authorship. It’ll also teach them the importance of understanding online community norms. Otherwise, they may seen as interlopers rather than peers, who just happen to be involved in the process of making the biggest reference tool in the history of the world. -andy