Wikipedia is in the crosshairs for many academics – but is it worthy of a student’s time? There is a concern over the academic relevance of websites that are available for the world to edit, as they may not be completely factually accurate.
Wikipedia understands its failings and has implemented the Wiki Education Foundation that is designed to combat misinformation. It is staffed by volunteer editors that help maintain the integrity of the stories and facts presented on the website. Episode 14 of Reply All (14 mins 37 seconds in) looks at one of the people who work hard to change just a small part of something on Wikipedia on a daily basis.
On the 22nd February 2017, an article was published on the NPR website (www.npr.org) entitled What Students Can Learn By Writing for Wikipedia . I found it a very creative and a useful insight into changing the assessments in which students take part in.
To summarise the article, it suggests that a student becomes an editor of Wikipedia. They choose their subject, research it and add it to the already developed pages of Wikipedia. The findings from the academics already employing Wikipedia as a means of assessment, have found that students engage at a more in-depth level because “they feel there is a higher stake than the difference between a B and an A-minus”. The fact that an article has the potential to be read by millions of people globally gives students a real reason to do well at the task.
The article concludes that while Wikipedia can be a positive force for student development, it should still be held as a starting point to any research (especially at a university level) and never as ‘a footnoted source’. With this in mind, getting a student to actively participate in learning activities can be a problem for many academics. Students often ask, “Is this part of the assessment?” or “Why do I need to do this?”. When using Wikipedia as part of a summative assessment, it seems to engage students in a way that more traditional assessments may not.
The workflow that students would be engaging with is very different to that of the traditional written essay. The framework that Wikipedia provides is open and offers public scrutiny. All those involved in Wikipedia are taking part and collaborating and checking the information for relevance and suitability. This appears to develop the students’ sense of pride and achievement in their work, and offers no place to hide. Rushing the essay or using quickly researched and poorly checked sources becomes much harder to do. There is no using Wikipedia to quickly paraphrase sections that are to be part of the essay; you are contributing to the narrative that Wikipedia provides.
Empowering a student into the traditional research methods of using ‘actual books’ (obviously there is now the world of an e-book but the principal is still the same). Checking internet hearsay for facts and truth, perception of a specific reality in the ever-changing nature of the world. Some parts of Wikipedia have been written and are essentially ‘finished’. Certain points in history are now not going to change drastically (although the interpretation of facts and data can heavily influence how the narrative of events is told). There is a wealth of knowledge and information pouring from our computer screens that needs to be verified, researched and potentially debunked or praised as genuine truth.
A geographer at the University of Portsmouth has been doing just this with his first-year students and in 2014 won the UK Educational Institution of the Year award, presented by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. Professor Humphrey Southall assigned his students a very small and limited Wikipedia entry for an English village (outside of the Portsmouth physical boundaries), which the students then had to research digitally. They were unable to use Wikipedia and had to focus their research on other institutions and organisations. The assignment required them to write a 1000-word entry on the location. A fine example is the entry for Sawley in South Yorkshire that now provides a comprehensive look at the village.
Throughout this style of assessment the students are developing key research skills which they can take into their second and third years. Providing them with a strong research ethic for their future projects.
Echoing the opening of the NPR article, we are surrounded by ‘fake’ and invented news at worst or just poor journalistic standards at best. Wikipedia is attempting to tighten its own editorial process and hold the content of the site to a higher standard. This can only ever be a good thing for those starting research, but the bottom line is always to remember that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. It may be the first website you visit when starting research, but it should not be your final source of information.Wikipedia is best used as a stepping stone to both online and offline literature, and even better a starting point for creating a different style of assessment.
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