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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Some colleges take a chance on Wikipedia

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Much of the information young people receive is increasingly, if not exclusively, supplied by the Internet. A big part of this influx of information is from the website Wikipedia. The English-language version of the web-based encyclopedia has more than four million entries – and it is consistently ranked as one of the most visited websites in the world. In the last few years, Wikipedia has started spreading to college classrooms, but not without its share of controversies and concerns.

Brian Carver, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, was searching on the Internet for mentions of his cyber law course focused on the Stored Communications Act. This act regulates how the government can use personal Internet data.

“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,”Carver says. “I thought, ‘Well, it ought to. This is an important act... Well Brian, you should fix that.’”

Not him, exactly. In the spring of 2009, he put students in his course to work on creating a page about the Stored Communications Act within Wikipedia, which was a risk. There were almost no experienced Wikipedia editors in the class, but in the end, Carver’s students added to the coverage of legal topics in Wikipedia – and they received a grade for it.

A year later, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, received a grant to begin an education program that would further spread Wikipedia within 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.

“We’re trying to change the perception of Wikipedia in academia,” says Lianna Davis, a communications manager for the Wikimedia Foundation. “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. Carver says he knows plenty of professors who rely on Wikipedia for teaching. “When you look at the quality of information that Wikipedia contains, versus some of those other top ten hits, Wikipedia often compares quite favorably. I think a lot of those quality concerns were due to unfamiliarity with the entire idea of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

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.

“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,” says Davis.

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.

“It’s out there and your students are using it, and actually faculty are using it, too. 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.”

At the same time, students become vital content creators. 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.

“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,” Davis says.

In the Wikiworld, homework assignments are no longer destined for the recycling bin of history. In 2010, students 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.

Nicole Jones joined KALW's Crosscurrents team in 2010 as a reporter covering criminal justice and public safety. Jones is an alum of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Time's online edition and The Bay Citizen.