A trusted bromide in academia is that you become a better student when you become a teacher. Something like that is happening at Wikipedia.
The Internet encyclopedia has grown explosively since its creation in 2001, but it quickly earned a reputation as a Petri dish for misinformation.
That’s changing. Gradually and informally, educators who repeatedly warned students to avoid Wikipedia like the plague began making it part of their course curriculum, assigning students to contribute content, either by writing original Wikipedia articles or editing existing ones.
“Many of those faculty had been Wikipedia contributors themselves,” LiAnna Davis of the Wiki Education Foundation tells me. But as the trend continued and grew, “we wanted to see what would happen if we made it into a formal program.”
Since the program’s launch in 2010, nearly 10,000 students in some 500 classes have contributed 44,000 printed pages of content, editing thousands of existing articles and creating 1,900 new ones, all of it overseen by academics while students get credit. Participating schools run the gamut from Ivy League to community college. The California contingent includes UC Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco, the California Maritime Academy and Pomona College.
What do students think? “They’re initially a little nervous never having done anything like that but once they get going, they love it,” said Diana Strassmann, a Rice University professor and chairwoman of the Wiki Education Foundation board who regularly assigns her students to write or edit Wikipedia articles.
Many students take the experience further. UC Berkeley graduate Kevin Gorman is the school’s new Wikipedian in residence. Some 50 cultural institutions – libraries, museums and archives – employ such staffers, but Gorman is the first at an undergraduate university. He is working on the release of content from campus archives, libraries and museums to broaden public access. The 24-year-old Wiki-aficionado coaches students and advises faculty on editing and generating articles on subjects including men’s rights, wild mushrooms and the Latina activist group Mothers of East Los Angeles.
Racial and gender diversity in authorship is also important. While Wikipedia’s editors are 90 percent male, 61 percent of education program participants are women, and that’s shifting the content from pop culture and so-called STEM topics – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to social sciences and the humanities.
Tighe Flanagan was part of the foundation’s pilot program in 2010 while a student at Georgetown University. “It made me nervous because I knew it wasn’t just my professor who’d be reading my paper, it was potentially anyone, but there are quite a lot of topics with room for improvement,” he said.
Now, Flanagan works for the foundation in its effort to support similar Wikipedia education programs in the Arab world, including in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
No one I spoke views Wikipedia as a primary source; it’s a starting point for research. But as education moves increasingly into the digital world, this is a terrific idea, particularly for its unintended benefits.
Knowing your contribution could be read by “potentially anyone” – 500 million worldwide access Wikipedia every month – you write better and feel a greater responsibility to accuracy.
“That’s what we see in all the student interviews we do at the end of a school term,” Davis said.
An even more critical benefit – having your ideas scrutinized and challenged. Students used to sustaining arguments for one professor’s grade must adapt to Wikipedia’s consensus model, where any article can be vetted by any of the roughly 80,000 people who make up the site’s community of editors and fact-checkers.
“Students are recognizing the value of peer review,” said Michele Van Hoeck, a professor at California Maritime Academy. “One student was thrilled that someone else on Wikipedia had edited his work. You’d think a person might feel that was a negative, but to him it was really exciting his idea was continuing, that someone read it and made it better.”
What a great lesson: It’s OK to be wrong; it’s OK to be corrected; it’s OK when someone adds a perspective you hadn’t considered. Our nation’s corrosive public discourse could use a healthy dose of that.