13 May 2008


My school district blocks wikis of all creeds and colours---including wikipedia---because it considers them to be equivalent to blogs. And we can't have kids engaged in meaningful reading/writing through social networking, now can we? The horror of it all.

I admit that I have often looked askance at wikipedia. What I've come to realize over the years, however, is that the quality of information is really not all that different from previous incarnations of the encyclopedia (Who wrote "World Book," fer cryin' out loud?). This means that students just need to remember to treat what's written there as they would any secondary source. After finishing Here Comes Everybody, I have acquired another layer of understanding about wikipedia. It's a kind of social contract (or "bargain" as Clay Shirky calls it) in that while anyone can edit pages in wikipedia, you are more likely to find reliable information than not. This is because it may take a lot of effort to come up with poor entries, but only a moment to delete them and replace with higher quality items.

I had been thinking about how nice it would be to use this in the classroom. What a great tool to be able to use with students---give them an article from wikipedia, have them verify what they can, and perhaps even improve the writing and information. Alas, my district will never see it that way...but other campuses do. From Deborah Jones' recent article for AFP:

Wikipedia the upstart Internet encyclopedia that most universities forbid students to use, has suddenly become a teaching tool for professors. Recently, university teachers have swapped student term papers for assignments to write entries for the free online encyclopedia.

Writing for Wikipedia "seems like a much larger stage, more of a challenge," than a term paper, said professor Jon Beasley-Murray, who teaches Latin American literature at the University of British Columbia.

"The vast majority of Wikipedia entries aren't very good," said Beasley-Murray, but said the site aims to be academically sound.

To reach its goal of academic standards, said Wikipedia's web site, it set up an assessment scale on its English-language site. The best encyclopedia entries are ranked as "Featured Articles," and run each day on the home page at www.wikipedia.com.

To be ranked as a "Featured Article," Wikipedia said an entry must "provide thorough, well-written coverage of their topic, supported by many references to peer-reviewed publications."

Of more than 10 million articles in 253 languages, only about 2,000 have reached "Featured Article" status, it said.

As an experiment, last January Beasley-Murray promised his students a rare A+ grade if they got their projects for his literature course, called "Murder, Madness and Mayhem," accepted as a Wikipedia "Featured Article."

In May, three entries created by nine students in the course became the first student works to reach Wikipedia's top rank.

Beasley-Murray said the projects took the students four months, and one entry was revised 1,000 times.

Typically, thousands or millions of people visit a Wikipedia entry, and each visitor is able to edit entries, or even flag an article considered unworthy to have it removed.

Working online with anyone watching or editing "was really hard to get into," said Eva Shiu, a third-year student who worked on the Marquez entry. "But it was really exciting, and I feel like I've accomplished something," she told AFP.

"I got addicted to it ... I was up nights until three or four a.m. in the morning working on it."

Monica Freudenreich, who worked on the Asturias entry, said she liked the fact her contribution will survive online. Usually term papers "end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed," she wrote on Wikipedia.

The University of British Columbia entries are among some 70 academic projects now registered at Wikipedia, by institutions from Yale University to the University of Tartu, Estonia.

Wikipedia itself invites professors "to use Wikipedia in your class to demonstrate how an open content website works (or doesn't)."

But the experiment has had controversies, including student work that was instantly deleted as not "notable."

"Sometimes it's a disaster," said Beasley-Murray. "But in some ways it's good news ... this was a great learning experience for students."

Too bad it can't be the same for the kids in my classroom.


Joe said...

That really is a shame! No wikis at all? This year my students and I created two wikis - a Physical Science glossary and an 8th Grade Physical Science textbook. For the textbook assignment students worked in small groups to create "chapters" based on one of the standards. It ended up being a great preteaching activity and review for our state test. That doesn't mean it was perfect. We had our bumps, but overall it was a complete success. As far as Wikipedia goes, my kids have access and we use it as a jumping off point for research projects. I like the fact that it can be used to show students the need to evaluate multiple sources. A few of kids have even contributed to articles where they found missing information. Perhaps you could con your district tech folks into a closed network wiki project to get the ball rolling. I know a science teacher who does wiki lab reports in this manner. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

The Science Goddess said...

Thanks. We need all the help we can get with our current Information Services regime. Sigh.

Jim Anderson said...

What Joe said. Banning wikis is shortsighted and anti-intellectual.

Mr. McGuire said...

Keep trying. All we can hope is that the leaders of our schools, like you, can someday convince the administrators to climb up out of the 19th century.