Thursday, April 05, 2007

Teaching Wikipedians

This link comes by way of academhack. It is an op-ed piece written by Cathy N. Davidson on the recent Wikipedia dustup at Middlebury College. Davidson writes:

Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia. It is a knowledge community, uniting anonymous readers all over the world who edit and correct grammar, style, interpretations, and facts. It is a community devoted to a common good — the life of the intellect. Isn't that what we educators want to model for our students?

Rather than banning Wikipedia, why not make studying what it does and does not do part of the research-and-methods portion of our courses? Instead of resorting to the "Delete" button for new forms of collaborative knowledge made possible by the Internet, why not make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study? That is already happening, of course, but we could do more. For example, some professors already ask students to pursue archival research for a paper and then to post their writing on a class wiki. It's just another step to ask them to post their labors on Wikipedia, where they can learn to participate in a community of lifelong learners.
I have actually been doing this in class this semester.

The central text for our course had no Wikipedia article yet, so I created and posted a brief outline of the book as a new article on Wikipedia. The major writing assignment for students in the class has been to write chapter by chapter summaries and to post them to the new Wikipedia entry. The article is now over 10,000 words and is really pretty good. It certainly could use more work, and right now I'm thinking that continuing to revise the entry may be the job of future classes.

The best part of this assignment, however, has been that the students have been VERY enthusiastic about it. Their writing doesn't seem like busy work to them. It's useful and meaningful to the world outside of the classroom and they are very proud of their creation. It has been a heartening teaching experience for me and I'm looking forward to using this method in other courses. I think it could easily be adapted to most classes where the Wikipedia article on some concept, book, author, or event could easily benefit from some focused attention by a group of students and their professor. And since nothing is ever lost on Wikipedia, the article can always be reverted back to a previous incarnation if the student work is judged to have done more harm than good. Plus, teaching students to be bold enough to change, edit, challenge and contribute to collaborative online communities is, I think, a worthwhile goal apart from any concrete results in online verbiage created.

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