In higher education, an idea has prevailed that Wikipedia is an unreliable resource. Some feel that Wikipedia’s lack of verifiable sources and academic peer review, as well as open editing by the general public, contributes to an unreliable encyclopaedia. Upon further examination, this is not necessarily true. The future of Wikipedia in higher education is changing, and dramatically. With over 60 universities in the United States, 10 in India, and four in Canada affiliated to the Wikipedia Global Education Program, Wikipedia is making its mark as an effective learning tool in higher education. Wikipedia’s Global Education Program aims to help universities integrate the use of Wikipedia as a learning tool, while simultaneously contributing to the advance of public knowledge. At a recent Open Education Community of Practice event, Wikipedia and Higher Education, four speakers shared the successes and challenges they faced when using Wikipedia in higher education.
Tips and Tricks on Wikipedia and Why Wikipedia Rocks
Dr. James Heilman is an instructor in the UBC Faculty of Medicine and sits in on the Wikimedia Canada Board of Directors. Dr. Heilman initially became interested in Wikipedia on a long hospital night shift. In the middle of his shift, he began to explore medical articles on Wikipedia, and he came across an article which was particularly inaccurate. The inaccuracy of the article motivated him to become more actively engaged with editing medical contributions on Wikipedia. Dr. Heilman believes that Wikipedia is not intended to replace academia, but that its goal is to create a website that encompasses “free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” Furthermore, he believes that Wikipedia’s purpose is to be an encyclopaedia; it is not created “to promote an opinion.” Wikipedia is a tool that is here to inform, not instruct others. Dr. Heilman is in fact very well informed on Wikipedia; he noted that the word Wiki means fast or quick in Hawaiian, and that Wikipedia is essentially a fast or quick encyclopaedia. For Dr. Heilman the beauty of Wikipedia is that it is accessible to everyone, and that it is written for a general audience in mind. An example is that for medical articles, Wikipedia does not use medical terminology, but uses everyday language; a patient is referred to as person, and renal functions are referred to as kidney functions.
Dr. Heilman questions the notion that Wikipedia “tends to be useless, and unreliable.” Although, he admits that a lot of it still is, he believes that there is a great potential for the growth of high quality Wikipedia articles. In fact, Dr. Heilman noted that Wikipedia has a very strict classification of articles. To check the grading of an article one just has to look for a symbol at the top right corner of the Wikipedia article – each grade has a different symbol attached to it. The quality of an article on Wikipedia is graded against seven possible options. A featured article is the highest grade an article can attain, followed by good article grade, and the poorest grade is a stub grade article. Achieving featured article status, or a good article grade, is not an easy task at all. Dr. Heilman explains that out of the entire sum of medical articles on Wikipedia, only 63 are classified as featured articles, and 109 as good articles. Furthermore, out of 3,769,033 articles in the English Wikipedia, only 3,403 are featured articles (0.09% of Wikipedia articles). But don’t be discouraged by the statistics. Wikipedia has various awards and scholarships, which it hopes will motivate people to improve articles on Wikipedia. For example, Dr. Heilman mentions that if you are a Canadian medical student, there is the possibility of winning a $1000 scholarship for whoever makes the greatest improvement to a single medical article on Wikipedia.
Using Wikipedia in Higher Education
Much like Dr. Heilman, Dr. Jon Beasley-Murray was drawn to improving Wikipedia because he too considered a lot of the information written on Wikipedia to be “rubbish.” As an Assistant Professor in Latin American Studies at UBC, Dr. Murray thinks that Wikipedia has the potential to be an “enormous repository of knowledge.” He realized that the fastest and most cost effective way to improve Wikipedia was to get university students involved. So he followed through with his plan, and created 12 articles on Wikipedia with students enrolled in his SPAN312 course, “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation.” The WikiProject was a huge success. Out of the 12 articles the students wrote, three got the top grade of featured article status, nine got a good article grade, and one got a B-Class article grade. Dr. Murray felt that writing on Wikipedia was valuable for his students because “they really had to prove themselves, as [the] students were graded by complete strangers.” Furthermore, he mentions that Wikipedia is “skeptical of people who just flash cards, you can’t just claim to be a university professor or a specialist, you have to prove it through the quality and depth of the information you provide on Wikipedia.” Dr. Murray gives the example of a man who a couple of years ago pretended to be a theology professor on Wikipedia as a way of justifying his religious opinions. It turns out the man was “a complete phoney.”
Top Seven Reasons Why to Use Wikipedia in Higher Education
Jonathan A. Obar is a visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University, and the Associate Director of the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law. Like Dr. Murray, Jonathan has used Wikipedia as an educational too. He used Wikipedia in one of his Media Policy classes. Since his class had 94 students, he split the students into groups of three to make the number more manageable. He asked each group to pick pages that interested them and to make edits that would help make the Wikipedia article of better quality. Based on his experience with his class of over 90 students, Jonathan recommends seven reasons why using Wikipedia would be a beneficial tool to use in Higher Education:
- Students still get the educational benefits of a traditional research assignment; they still have to write, edit, and research.
- With an exponential growing number of users each day, Wikis are “hot” right now. Using Wikis in higher education introduces students to what is being used in the “real world” as a distribution of knowledge.
- Using Wikis introduces students to new media literacy skills. For example, it teaches them what it means to collaborate online.
- Students get feedback from a variety of new sources, not just from their instructors.
- Students gain unique writing skills, as they learn to write from a neutral perspective.
- Students get to feel proud about leaving something valuable behind and contributing to the advance of public knowledge.
- Students benefit from the Wikipedia Ambassador Program, as both faculty and students will get in person support for any problems or questions related to using Wikipedia in the classroom.
How to use UBC Wikis in the Classroom
The final speaker Will Engle, Educational and Social Media Resource Coordinator at CTLT, identified some of the major differences between using Wikipedia and the UBC Wiki. Besides having to use a campus-wide login to create and edit within the UBC Wiki, another major difference is that the purpose of the UBC Wiki is different from Wikipedia’s purpose as an encyclopaedia. UBC Wikis have no set purpose in mind, instead, they are “a collaborative space,” which UBC faculty, students, and staff are encouraged to use for whichever purpose they see fit. UBC Wikis were made with the idea in mind that “people who collaborate with one another, learn from each other.” They are being used for creating campus information resources, course materials, and as a space for collaboration.
From this event, it is quite apparent that Wikipedia can be used as an educational tool in higher education. Indeed Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation can contribute to the growth of dynamic and innovative teaching practices. Visit the Wikipedia Global Education program for more information.