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Once-scorned Wikipedia now embraced in school

Michael Surran/Flickr

Teachers who once shunned the idea of students citing Wikipedia on class assignments now are embracing the website as a teaching tool.

Dozens of teachers at high schools and universities – including several in California – are assigning their students to write and edit entries for the online encyclopedia. The projects are designed to help students improve their research and writing skills, while adding to the public knowledge.

Sheldon Gen, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, asked students to write Wikipedia entries for an environmental policy class. His graduate students chose topics ranging from Mendocino County’s ban of genetically modified organisms to recent amendments to the Clean Air Act. Gen said some students initially were skeptical of Wikipedia and the assignment.

“The perception among a lot of people is that Wikipedia is not a particularly good source for newsworthy, policy-worthy information. My students shared that skepticism,” Gen said. “But all of them said at the end that they really liked the project. One thing they truly appreciated is they published articles that are now part of the public dialogue.”

Eric Goldman, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, said he warned his students that the editing process for Wikipedia entries could be ruthless.

“The students felt a lot of stress that their entries would be edited into nonsense,” Goldman said. “As it turned out, in the second course I taught, the students were almost disappointed that they got virtually no feedback at all.”

The Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, has worked with 24 universities in an initiative to improve the U.S. public policy entries on the site. Professors at UC Berkeley, the University of San Francisco and USC also participated.

Last month, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that it is expanding the project to all topic areas and countries. Foundation spokesman Frank Schulenburg said teachers began assigning students Wikipedia entries in the early days of the site, and the foundation liked the idea and decided to support it. The foundation has not always been able to keep up with the demand for sufficient support and help in navigating Wikipedia’s technical aspects.

In fact, some professors say they have opted out of projects because they lacked adequate support from Wikipedia to keep students on track. Goldman acknowledged that while rewarding, the project took considerably more time than expected, and he’s not sure he will do it again.

Next spring, the Wikimedia Foundation plans to begin a pilot program with a high school teacher in Virginia to see how younger students do. Some high school teachers already have experimented with assignments on their own.

James Butler, a high school teacher in North Carolina, has been assigning Wikipedia projects to his Advanced Placement biology students for three years and says the experience has been “profoundly beneficial.”

One of Butler’s students, Timothy Hatfield Jr., 17, spent months combing through scientific journals, articles and books to help write and edit a 5,200-word article on the loggerhead sea turtle. He analyzed reference material from several countries and attained permission from photographers to publish their work on the site.

Hatfield made 476 edits to the article, all tracked on the website, and the article eventually earned featured status, a designation fewer than 1 percent of all entries receive.

“I learned how to truly research and find reputable sources,” Hatfield said. “There’s always going to be someone that challenges you. You can’t leave room for assumptions.”

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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