Tag: Wikipedia Research

My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 2

buddysnow

I posted last week about the class I led this semester, Wikipedia as a Research Tool with freshman in the Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  That post provided background on how I constructed the class and shifts in student thinking about Wikipedia over the course of the semester.

For a portion of the student’s final exam, they responded to two questions aimed at evaluating the course experience.  First, I asked about the most important insight they gained from the class.  Second, I asked the students to recommend changes for the next time  the course is offered.

Below I present a representative sample of student responses to the first question and my commentary.  Next week, I will follow the same format on the student suggestions about changes for the next time I teach the course.

What was the most important insight you gained from this class?

Perhaps the most consistent insight students listed was that Wikipedia was not the completely unreliable information resource their high school teachers and some of their current college instructors warned them about.

At one point my middle school librarian said that Wikipedia was the devil. As a result, after all these years of being told that Wikipedia was an unreliable resource and that I was not allowed to use it, I just automatically thought that Wikipedia was not reliable.  Learning about how the website is run and that most of the “employees” are in fact volunteers gave me a better insight on the integrity of the website and the people who run it.

The most important insight I learned from the class is that Wikipedia is more trustworthy than I once thought.

I learned many things during this course, but the most important would be evaluating credible sources. Yes, I learned this in previous high school classes, but in college credible sources has a whole new meaning.

Of importance, the student insights were not based on an uncritical acceptance that everything printed on a Wikipedia page is a canonical truth.  Rather, the insights resulted from the examination of Wikipedia articles of the their own choosing, coupled with an appreciation for the editing process.

I saw first hand just how quickly incorrect information or articles without citations were taken down.

I did not even know that Wikipedia could be edited by everyone.   Teahouses and other editors are also available to help anyone create their own Wikipedia edits and articles.

One student’s comments on their own article creation was particularly insightful:

My page is actually being considered for deletion simply because it is too similar to another page. I was not aware of this and actually thought that my page would contain much more information than the one that took over mine.  This was however not the case. I blame the fact that I did not thoroughly read the other page. In all honesty I should have simply made a series of edits to the existing page. After using Wikipedia I have found that if an editor goes in with selfish intentions, he or she may not like he or she finds. Wikipedia is meant to be a place of selfless unbiased information. This would have to be my greatest insight.

Students enjoyed writing their articles, even if they often struggled with formatting and technical issues.  (In fact, technical considerations was the primary area students recommended addressing in future courses.  I will take up this point next week.)

“I actually enjoyed creating a Wikipedia article. I was really stressed and confused in the beginning because I did not know what to expect.  However, as I learned how to edit sections and add information, I began to enjoy creating my article. It was fun to mess around with the layout of the page and deciding what to add. I would consider making another Wikipedia page in my free time.

Some students were critical of their critics.  I will return to this point next week.

It is not so much that becoming a user is difficult, as it is quite simple, but, as demonstrated in many situations with articles presented in class, there are those individuals that seem to be very avid Wikipedia editors, and these people can be somewhat territorial.

Placing such heavy reliance on the community to police itself is a fairly brave approach to moderation, but one which fundamentally breaks apart the long-existing problem of moderators running pages in their own interests rather than those of the community.  While it may not be in its best shape at present, the existing architecture supports a self-sustaining community full of internal checks and balances which, though tedious, serve well to keep the project on task and neutral.  As someone who is very interested in the growth and development of internet culture, especially in the inevitable forming of social cliques and hierarchies, Wikipedia has offered me a new paradigm from which to view the world online.

Students came to an understanding of Wikipedia as user-generated content.

One of the most valuable things I learned from this class definitely had to do with how many people contribute to user-generated sites like Wikipedia. I never realized just how many people were so dedicated to the maintenance and improvement of the site. Even just from observing my own personal page, I noticed edits being made very quickly. This completely surprised me, as I thought my page would probably just stay under the radar since it was not a very popular or controversial topic. Also, I was astonished to realize how well maintained the site is given that there is not a large paid staff. This means that all the countless edits made on the millions of articles are reviewed and adjusted by citizens just like myself.

And finally, students in the course came away with an appreciation of how they can use Wikipedia in their research.  In another part of the final exam I asked the hypothetical:  “In your college level U.S. History class, you are assigned to write a 2000 word paper on the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Will you consult Wikipedia in writing this paper?  If yes, how?  If not, why not?”

Without exception, every student said they would consult Wikipedia as a starting point for further direction in their research.  For example:

The most important insight that I gained from this class is a confirmation of what Wikipedia is actually about. I always knew it was an encyclopedia but most people used it differently. Wikipedia is not a research tool, or a source shopping list, and even though it can be used in those ways, what Wikipedia is really about is being an online encyclopedia. It is simply an online “book” of facts, and these facts are then used to inform people. I do not think that Wikipedia ever had the intention or wanted to become acceptable as a citable source.

 My own greatest insight from the class has to do with how I will teach the class next time.  The one-credit hour course met only once per week for one hour.  I found the 12-week syllabus provided by Wikipedia overly ambitious for some students in the class.  In fact, up to one-half of the articles written by the individual students will ultimately be either deleted or combined with existing articles.  At the same time, half of the class completed articles of worth, and the entire class received a solid introduction to the pros and cons of user-generated content.  I will return to this point next week.

 

My Experience Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 1

Untitled

Wordle generated from word associations with “Wikipedia” at the beginning of the semester.

This week is the final session in the Wikipedia as a Research Tool class I taught this semester to Freshman in the Undergraduate Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  I have blogged a bunch in the past, most recently last week, on the merits of Wikipedia in both higher education, cultural heritage and museum studies, and as an information resource.  Generally, I find that Wikipedia gets a bad rap largely from ignorance about the evolution of the resource or from those not understanding the intent of the tool.

Regardless, on the first day of class this semester I aimed to gauge the students knowledge of Wikipedia, determine their specific interests in the subject, and go from there.  I had in mind that each student would create their own Wikipedia article or substantially edit an existing page.  Early on I made contact with Jami Mathewson from the Wiki Education Foundation.  Jami sent me a packet of information that included a 12-week syllabus for writing a Wikipedia article.  Wikipedia has many intro and how-to brochures/tutorials available through Wikimedia Outreach.  I did not use all the resources available to me as an instructor in the course, especially having the students turn in all assignments in the Wikipedia course space.  Next time I likely will.  

My own syllabus follows the one Jami provided, supplemented with additional assignments and readings.  My additions focused less on a discussion of Wikipedia and more on the concepts of user-generated content, open authority and public access.  In class, I noted to students that Wikipedia will give way to something else, in the same way that Friendster, was replaced by My Space which lost out to Facebook, which will be overshadowed by something else.  One course objective was to contextualize Wikipedia within the noted concepts.  For example, a portion of the student’s final assignment is to assess the recent MIT Technology Review article The Decline of Wikipedia.

On the first day of the semester and again this past Tuesday now nearing the end of the semester, students created a list of word associations for the term Wikipedia.  The lists were spontaneous responses.  The instructions were simple “Take out a piece of blank paper and write your name at the top.”  When everyone had done so, I instructed the students to “Write a list of words that you associate with Wikipedia.”  The students responded for two minutes.  The wordle or word cloud at the top of this post is from lists the students created on the first day of class.  The wordle below is from the lists the students created this past Tuesday.   

The wordle from the first day of the semester can be read as “Wikipedia is for internet based research to obtain information.  Although a helpful search tool, Wikipedia is unreliable.  Wikipedia is used in plagiarism.  Some schools ban the use of Wikipedia.”

The wordle fourteen weeks later, shown below, is markedly different in several respects:

  • Research, the most common word listed at the start of the semester is completely missing at the end of the semester.  This change likely reflects a consistent class discussion over the semester that Wikipedia is a very useful starting point to obtain information, but not the final stop in doing scholarly research.
  • Unreliable in the first wordle is completely missing from the wordle at the end of the semester and is replaced by reliable and at the same rate.  This switch is very easy to understand.  Most students, commented in their weekly reading journals how surprised they were at the amount of editing done on Wikipedia articles as documented on article history and talk pages.  The students were also surprised at how quickly other users edited their own articles, in some cases adding references, in other instances deleting content that was not neutral and expressed a specific point of view.  The shift from unreliable to reliable also reflects a concern raised by students on the first day of class – they felt ill-prepared to argue against their high school teachers who banned or strongly discouraged the use of Wikipedia.  Their own experience with Wikipedia provided them with the arguments they needed.  Of note neither plagiarism or school banned appears on the final wordle.
  • Other terms that appear in the wordle at the end of the semester such as user-generated, free, citation, accessible, neutral, and encyclopedic represent an appreciation of the Five Pillars of Wikipedia.  International is a very logical inclusion on the final wordle for students who spent any time exploring the Wikipedia education pages.

So what does all of this mean?  Have I effectively duped some of the best and brightest into believing that Wikipedia is something useful and students do not really need to heed the dire warnings of folks such as modern-day digital Luddite Andrew Keen who in his Cult of the Amateur warns that with such user-generated content:

“The monkeys takeover.  Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers – our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios.  In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show.  With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future” (p. 9).

I think not. Or as I have noted in the past, “what a fine job us primates are doing!”

In Part 2 of this post, the students will speak.

Java Printing

Wordle generated from word associations with “Wikipedia” at the end of the semester.

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