Wikipedia goes to class


James Madison sophomore Anna Wilson works on a Wikipedia-related assignment for a class called "Professional and Technical Editing.” (Norm Shafer/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 29, 2011

A Virginia Tech graduate student hit save on her overview of the state workers’ compensation commission one spring day, but before her professor could take a look at it, someone else began deleting entire sections, calling them trivial and promotional.

It wasn’t a teaching assistant on a power trip — it was a Wikipedia editor known only as “Mean as custard.”

“I had worked on it for almost an entire day,” said Amy Pearson, a public administration master’s student. “It was kind of shocking.”

This school year, dozens of professors from across the country gave students an unexpected assignment: Write Wikipedia entries about public policy issues.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the Web site, organized the project in an effort to bulk up the decade-old online encyclopedia’s coverage of topics ranging from the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Such issues have been treated on the site in much less depth than TV shows, celebrity biographies and other elements of pop culture.

Many students involved in the project have received humbling lessons about open-source writing as their work was revised, attacked or deleted by anonymous critics with unknown credentials.

In the fall, Rochelle A. Davis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, told undergraduates in her culture and politics course to create a Wikipedia page about a community they belonged to, then use that research to develop a thesis for an academic paper.

“Collectively, they were the best papers I’ve ever read at Georgetown,” Davis said. She said students benefited from vetting their ideas with a wider community — a practice that could help academics at all levels. “This is where we are going,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

In the fall semester, nine professors were involved. There are about three dozen now. By next semester, the foundation hopes to expand to schools in India, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. The goal is to train at least 10,000 professors and students by 2013.

The total number of participants in the volunteer project is about 600. But in April alone, that group contributed 2.9 million characters worth of information, which would fill nearly 2,000 traditional printed pages.

“The outcome is just amazing,” said Frank Schulenburg, the foundation’s head of public outreach. “We have a much larger number of professors who are interested than we ever expected.”

Still, Wikipedia and academia make an odd pair. The “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” has long had an uneasy relationship with professors who dedicate their lives to filling scholarly journals and libraries. In their eyes, Wikipedia is an unreliable cheat sheet.

“I start every semester with the typical speech: ‘If you are turning in a paper and cite Wikipedia, then we have a problem. We need to talk,’ ” said Matt Dull, who is Pearson’s professor at Virginia Tech. But this time, he gave that speech and followed it with the Wiki assignment.

As the Wikipedia catalogue has grown to 18 million entries in more than 270 languages, the site has become one of the leading ways much of the world learns about new topics, double-checks memories of past events and settles bar bets.

Professors such as Dull are starting to see Wikipedia as an opportunity to educate a massive audience on the specialized topics their students research. Most college papers are read by a handful of people, at most, while a Wiki entry can be read by thousands (or millions) around the world.

“It’s the ability for students to feel that their works matters, that it doesn’t get trapped in the classroom,” said Adel Iskander, a Georgetown instructor who assigned Wiki entries in his graduate-level Arab media course. “We’re kind of challenging the academic establishment, in a way.”

To the uninitiated, writing for Wikipedia can be intimidating. There are complicated rules for what can be an entry and what counts as a reliable source. The language must hew to a neutral point of view. Writers also must learn how to add technical code to display their work properly on the Web.

To help students and professors, the foundation recruited a network of experts to organize campus workshops and answer questions via e-mail or online chats.

As students create the content, instructors must find a way to grade it. By the end of the term, the typical student has already received help — or headaches — from a host of Wiki editors. Automated Web tools known as bots have scoured their work for grammatical and coding errors.

“We had so many people, from God knows where, scold them for things that they have done and praise them,” said Cindy Allen, a technical writing and editing instructor at James Madison University who assigned two classes to write Wiki entries. “It’s really a different thing.”

Some professors have sifted through the editing histories of their students’ pages to pinpoint what they wrote. Some have simply given participation grades. Others have asked students to convert their entries into traditional term papers.

Some students walked away with an understanding of how to evaluate the quality of a Wikipedia page. Others found themselves contributing more to Wikipedia — just for fun.

“I got really sort of addicted to it,” said Jeff Reger, a Georgetown graduate student. “At this point, when I hear of something new, I find myself wondering, ‘Oh, I wonder what that Wikipedia page says.’ ”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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