Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, has been scorned by academics since its inception, or, at best, is regarded as only useful for reasons unrelated to scholarly research (e.g., to settle an argument on how many seasons the Brady Bunch ran, as a reminder for when Oregon became an official U.S. state, etc.). A major reservation many of us have about Wikipedia is that it is an unacceptable citation source for the type of writing we assign to our students, and for our own writing. Fair enough. But it is a major information hub and will likely remain so for a long time.
A couple of items worth considering:
- Wikipedia is staffed by thousands of volunteers who carefully monitor entries. Just try posting to a heavily trafficked Wikipedia item. You will soon find yourself instantly peer reviewed by an amateur maven, scholarly expert and, guaranteed, a Wikipedia style and content expert who polices everything from semicolons to proper encyclopedic tone.
- Editing is also crowdsourced. Individuals can create accounts and revise and update content. This is done in a way that publicizes the identity of the individuals doing the revising, and, when revisions have been made, others who edit a given Wikipedia entry are notified.
Another mechanism for improving and updating Wikipedia content is for organizations to create a portal that centralizes and organizes a given content area, such as psychology. To this end, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) launched the APS Wikipedia Initiative. Here, pages can be initiated and updated on the main Wikipedia page and they are also pulled together within the portal for easy access. In addition, professors can register their course with the initiative and use the portal to organize Wikipedia writing assignments.
I recently implemented a Wikipedia writing assignment for my undergraduate comparative psychology course. Students were required to select either a species and behavior of interest (e.g., dolphin communication) or a general behavioral phenomenon (e.g., altruism) and either create a new Wikipedia site (if one did not already exist), or add content that was previously not covered in an existing site. I soon discovered endless opportunities for comparative psychology students, and I imagine the same holds for behavioral neuroscience entries as well. Every one to two weeks the class (n=15 students) spent an hour in a computer laboratory so that I could provide simple tutorials on using the portal, hold topic development sessions, demonstrate and practice editing functions in Wikipedia, peer critiquing and final assignment submission. In-class time for this assignment totaled about six hours interspersed over a 10-week quarter (four credit course). I learned that much of this work could also be done out of class; though some in-class work, especially as students get started on the assignment, is advised.
So what benefits are there to assigning Wikipedia writing and editing in the classroom? First, the assignment was very well-received by most of the students. They expressed sincere pride and concern about their work, primarily because it ends up in such a public domain. The students appreciated that their writing would not end up in a professor's drawer or trash can at the end of the term. The project also involves a lot of collaboration and discussion among students as they learn to navigate Wikipedia editing and writing, and decide on topics. Also, an important skill that our students need to develop is the ability to communicate complex information to a general audience, and to do so via online media. Overall, as the course instructor I thoroughly enjoyed the assignment.
On the downside, if one does not wish to devote class time to teaching students how to use the portal and about editing basics of Wikipedia this assignment would not be a wise choice (though, in the end I found the process to work quite smoothly, with minimal need for troubleshooting and no need for technical support). Also, although the students are the authors of the work, playing a supervisory role for Wikipedia writing may make some instructors uncomfortable. As the term wound down and new and revised Wikipedia content about comparative psychology hit the internet, I felt a twinge of anxiety and a sense of responsibility for what my students wrote. Of course, anyone with internet access can pick up where I left off and give the students continued feedback on their work.
If anyone is interested in using a Wikipedia assignment for their course I would be happy to share any further thoughts or resources. Also, if you have used Wikipedia in the classroom for your own course please consider sharing your thoughts with me or perhaps over the Div. 6 email list.