The education of young people is increasingly, if not exclusively, coming from the internet. And a big part of it is from the website Wikipedia. The English-language version alone has more than three million entries. It’s consistently ranked as one of the most visited websites in the world, after Facebook and before Twitter. And in the last few years, Wikipedia has started spreading to college classrooms, but not without its share of controversies and concerns.
Academics have accused the site of being full of inaccuracies. Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says college students shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research.
But, as KALW’s Nicole Jones reports, professors at top universities think students are inevitable contributors to Wikipedia’s evolution.
NICOLE JONES: A couple of years ago an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, named Brian Carver, was doing an Internet search for his cyber law course on the Stored Communications Act. It’s an act that regulates how the government can use personal Internet data.
BRIAN CARVER: And one of the first hits was the Wikipedia article and so I followed it and as I poked around a bit, I realized that Wikipedia did not have a stand-alone article on the Stored Communications Act and I thought, “Well, it ought to. This is an important act.” So then I thought, “Well Brian, you should fix that.”
Not him, exactly. In the spring of 2009 he put his students to work on it. It was a risk. There were almost no experienced Wikipedia editors in the class. But in the end, Carver says his students added to the coverage of legal topics in Wikipedia – and got a grade for it.
CARVER: One of my favorite comments that a student made is that this was the first paper he’d ever written that wouldn’t end up in his professor’s recycling bin.
In fact, it could be read around the world. A year later, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, got a grant to start an education program and spread Wikipedia to college classrooms. The goal? To improve the quality of public policy content on the site.
Carver’s class was just a start. Wikimedia has now expanded the program to at least 47 other courses at universities including Harvard, Georgetown, and UC Berkeley. Quite a turnaround for a website once considered something of a questionable cheat sheet.
A few years ago, the Middlebury College history department banned the use of the site after students repeatedly used faulty answers from a Wikipedia entry on an exam. Several other colleges, including UC Santa Barbara and the University of Illinois have had similar problems.
LIANNA DAVIS: We’re trying to change the perception of Wikipedia in academia.
Lianna Davis is a communications manager for the Wikimedia Foundation.
DAVIS: Your students are going to be using Wikipedia regardless of whether you put “No Wikipedia” on the top of your syllabus.
Students everywhere have been using Wikipedia as a research tool, long before the Wikimedia Foundation officially encouraged it. And Carver says he knows plenty of professors who rely on Wikipedia for teaching.
CARVER: When you look at the quality of information that Wikipedia versus some of those other top 10 hits, Wikipedia often compares quite favorably. I think a lot of those quality concerns were unfamiliarity with the entire idea of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
But Wikipedia has made huge progress in accuracy thanks to its community of dedicated volunteers: its Wikieditors.
A longtime trusted Wikieditor can become an administrator with powers to protect articles, delete articles, and block other users. Davis says it’s the work of these volunteers – and now students – that keeps Wikipedia honest.
DAVIS: What we wanted to have come out of this is: A) just the students improve the quality of the articles for sure, but B) is the element of media literacy.
Wikipedia requires that editors back everything up by citing journals, books, and newspapers – just like in any research paper.
DAVIS: One of the professors actually told us that through the course of this assignment that her students were actually forced to go to the library for the first time and she thought many of them had never set foot in the library prior to being asked to write a Wikipedia assignment
The method behind quality control is tricky, whether it’s dealing with Wikivandals who post defamatory entries about religion or Wikieditors who can’t agree on whether a human with a cat is its “owner,” “caregiver,” or “human companion.”
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says the human element makes the online encyclopedia relevant as a practical starting point. And Carver knows it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
CARVER: It’s out there and your students are using it, and actually faculty are using it to. It’s more of a question of whether we are going to prepare our students to operate in this new environment or not. If we are training students to be better critical readers, that’s a great thing.
And not only better critical readers, but vital content creators, too. One student at Georgetown University wrote an article on the National Democratic Party of Egypt in November of 2010. When he finished his article in December, everything changed with the Arab Spring. Davis said his article went from getting 200 to 300 views a day to more than 5,000.
DAVIS: It just shows the power of these assignments where you never know when the topic the student is writing on is actually something that is going to be critically important.
In the Wikiworld, homework assignments are no longer destined for the recycling bin of history. Students last year contributed 5,600 printed pages worth of content to the English Wikipedia – that’s the double the amount from the year before. And as the program expands, expect to see Canadian, Indian, and Brazilian students making a dent in their versions of Wikipedia.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Nicole Jones.
Nicole Jones is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
What do you think about college students creating Wikipedia content? Do you think it’s being used responsibly? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.