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.