Why smart profs want students to use Wikipedia

It encourages research, citation, revision…

Photo by Kalexanderson on Flickr

Wikipedia is an outcast on most university campuses. At the beginning of the semester, most professors mention that it’s banished from essays and assignments. If you dare to include a Wikipedia article on your reference list, you’re practically asking for a zero on your bibliography. In extreme cases, your professor might set your essay on fire and scatter the ashes across the Pacific Ocean. That’s because most profs regard Wikipedia’s crowdsourced articles as unreliable.

Despite the website’s reputation, some professors at schools like the University of Alberta are using Wikipedia as a teaching resource. Never mind using Wikipedia as a reference: these profs are actually replacing traditional essays with assignments where students write Wikipedia entries.

Why the turnaround? For one thing, writing Wikipedia articles offers students some unique learning opportunities. “In addition to getting all the benefits from a traditional research assignment, (students) are also learning new media literacy skills. They’re being exposed to a growing Wiki culture, and they’re being exposed to a very real and very relevant social media phenomenon,” Jonathan Obar, Wikipedia’s education coordinator for Canada, told The Gateway student newspaper. By ‘very relevant social media phenomenon,’ Obar might be referring to the fact that Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website around the world.

Another advantage to using Wikipedia in the classroom is that students get a larger audience for their writing. A 2,000 word term paper on the metaphysical significance of Yorick’s skull in Hamlet might take a lot of work, but it’s probably only going to be read by one person: the prof or a TA.

In contrast, an article on Wikipedia has a much larger potential audience. A student at Georgetown University wrote an article about the democratic party in Egypt as a term paper for his class. After the revolution in Egypt, the article received more than 100,000 hits. An added bonus is that students produce more accurate work when they’re writing for Wikipedia’s public audience, according to Brenna Gray, an English professor at Douglas College in suburban Vancouver.

The ability to make students more careful should be enough to convince more profs that Wikipedia is a useful teaching tool. For those who need more, consider this: Gray says Wikipedia encourages research, citations and revision, all of which are “ideals espoused by English instructors.”




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Why smart profs want students to use Wikipedia

  1. Scott – If you write a 2000 word paper on Yorkick you might be unpleasantly surprised by your mark. His name is Yorick. You might want to correct the article. =)

  2. @Me Thanks. I guess that explains the mark I got on my English essay….

  3. Scott, why is Macleans censoring comments on your article?

    • Gregory

      I’m the editor of this website. I reserve the right to delete comments that are inappropriate. I deleted your comment because it linked to a graphic image. If you want to re-post a comment that doesn’t link to any such images or violate any other basic commenting standards, you’re welcome to. Thanks for reading.

      Josh Dehaas

      • @Josh: Why is Macleans requiring moderation approval on all comments though? It used to be that comments were only removed if they were inappropriate, after the fact.

      • Okay, thanks Josh. What I had said earlier is that the Wikipedia community is loaded with interesting and dedicated individuals. But to find the really, really curious folks, you need to look to the Wikimedia Foundation leadership. For example, there’s one trustee of the Wikimedia UK charity who was so gung-ho about uploading images to Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, he stripped off his pants, chained his wrists to his ankles (behind his back), then had someone take his picture (buttocks-side-up), all to illustrate the Wikipedia article about “hogtie bondage”. Later on, he thought twice about this, and he (quietly) attempted to get the images removed without anyone important noticing, and not going through the usual and proper process of the Wikimedia community reviewing deletions. Now, he’s still a staunch defender of graphic images on Wikimedia sites, just as long as those images aren’t of his own bare buttocks. And if you should mention his previous experience in photography and deleted photography, he will not hesitate to label the mention as “deliberate and personal harassment”:

        http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Commons%3ADeletion_requests%2FFile%3APeyronie%27s_disease_shown_in_flaccid_penis.jpg&action=historysubmit&diff=64213012&oldid=64212515

        I think it’s important that the “smart profs” learn a little more about the goings on at Wikipedia before they dive into it head first, so to speak. That’s why I provided a convenient link within my own name here, which will take you to a site that contains no graphic image, but discusses the graphic image. Intelligent readers can figure this all out for themselves; but I appreciate your protection of the “young minds” here, Josh.

  4. Scott,

    Thanks for writing the article. For more information about the Wikimedia Foundation’s Education Program, check out:

    http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Education_Program

    You can also check out the brochure for the Canadian arm of the Education Program:

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikipedia_Canada_Education_Program_-_Brochure.pdf

    We actually had 5 classes running in Canada this fall, four at the University of Toronto and one at UofA. In January we should have 9 or 10 classes up and running, including classes at UBC, UWO and McMaster as well.

    If you’re still interested in hearing more, you might find this interesting:

    http://blog.wikimedia.org/2011/11/14/from-my-dirty-little-secret-to-my-favorite-tool-for-e-pedagogy-how-one-university-professor-learned-to-love-wikipedia/

    Thanks again.

    Jonathan Obar

  5. @ Gregory – I think the concern has more to do with lawsuits and PR than young minds although I do not personally know anyone who writes for Macleans. The terms of use of the comment section are not written by Josh but, clearly, he is doing his best to enforce them because his employer asks him to do so. In other words, you’re shooting the messenger. Of course, Josh can correct me if I am wrong.

    • @Me: I struggle to figure out why it’s okay to post an image of a bare-bottomed Wikimedia UK trustee in chains, on a website that is funded by a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity; but that by posting a mere link to said image on Macleans.ca, we suddenly need to be talking about “inappropriate” and “graphic” images, not to mention “lawsuits” and “PR”.

      Or, are you suggesting that Wikipedia and its sister sites are perhaps also in need of a few lawsuits and labels of inappropriateness? I could be persuaded to that notion!

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