If you can’t beat them, have them edit: Using Wikipedia as a learning tool


I hear myself coaching students to “show, don’t tell” when writing. For years, I have repeatedly told students not to use Wikipedia as a reference. I warned them that it was filled with anonymous user-generated content that was not subject to peer review, and that it was plagued by pranksters who purposefully populated entries with factual errors. (E.g., look at the Esperanza Spalding entry the night after she beat Justin Bieber to win the Best New Artist Grammy.) Yet students continued use Wikipedia as a source. This semester, by having students edit Wikipedia topics relevant to our Sensation and Perception course, I’m showing them the process by which this content is generated, vetted, and changed, and in the process, I’m meeting some of the outreach initiatives of my professional organizations.

Pulling the assignment together was fairly easy. Wikipedia has numerous examples of syllabi, suggested assignments, and timelines for scaffolded writing assignments, and a large community of academics who have offered help. To become one of the 30+ million Wikipedia editors (“Wikipedians”), all you need is an email address and a unique user name. Although I’ve outed myself on the user:ProfRox page where I maintain the assignment information, I required that my students remain anonymous.

First I formed students in groups of 2-3 based on their self-identified strengths in web technical proficiency, copy-editing, and group leadership. Students chose topics from a list of 25 ‘wiki-stubs’ (articles that need significant expansion) as identified by the Society for Neuroscience and Association for Psychological Science. I highly recommend editing professional association-identified stubs rather than trying to add new entries, as new pages are often subject to close scrutiny by Wikipedians on the lookout for ‘vanity’ entries.

Second, I gave the students an in-depth tour of Wikipedia. Most students only see the main ‘article’ page on Wikipedia, and do not visit the other pages for each subject. The contains a backlog of critiques of source material, clarity, and veracity. The shows you when, how, and by whom the article has been edited. Justin Bieber’s page was edited over fifty times in the last five days; the pretectal region of the brain (the subject of my dissertation) has only been edited ten times in the last two years. The Edit tab shows the formatting code allows anyone with a Wikipedia identity to make real time edits.

Next, student groups laid claim to their topics by identifying the stubs’ weaknesses and their plans for expansion on the discussion page. This gave Wikipedians who might have these pages on their ‘watch list’ a chance to respond to the proposed revisions. Some of the articles we are editing hadn’t been touched in years, so this step was mostly ceremonial. After receiving feedback from me on a draft (composed in GoogleDocs for real time group editing), the students went live with their Wikipedia edits this week. Over the next few weeks, the groups will continue revising the article, based on comments from me, from other Wikipedians, and from invited experts in the field (we hope).

My suggestions for revisions are in the discussion page, and you can view history to see what improvements my students have made.

Curious about the student reaction, effectiveness and assessment of this assignment? Stay tuned for the next issue of Synergia.

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