CTLT Dialogues

The Blog of the Center for Teaching & Learning with Technology

Wikis As a Teaching Tool

Posted by ctlt on June 6, 2008

Daniel Cassino, Assistant Professor for Social Sciences and History at Becton College, spoke about his use of Wikipedia and a private Wiki as teaching tools. Wikis are collections of Web pages, often put together as online resources that are used as books, particularly reference books. In contrast to traditional reference books, such as encyclopedias, Wikis are generally written and edited by groups of self-selected people, who often have volunteered to write articles on specific topics because they have “fanatical” interest in those topics. Daniel pointed out that the variety and length of articles in a Wiki is determined by the depth of interest of those collaborating on writing and editing them, and not on any particular commitment to a breadth of interest.

He used as an example his class assignment he called the “Harry S. Truman Project.” The assignment was to go through the Truman biography at Wikipedia, find citations for any uncited information, and add those citations to the Wikipedia article. This led to a student making an edit to Truman article, which led to that student getting banned from Wikipedia, and Daniel’s discovery that there are some 50 pages of discussion on Wikipedia of whether there should be a period after the S in Harry S. Truman’s name. People at Wikipedia discuss everything, in extensively documented discussions.

Daniel concluded it was important to keep students out of the “shark-infested waters” of such intense discussions, and keep them in the “kiddie pool,” at least until they became more accustomed to how Wikipedia works, and what reactions to their edits might be like.

He recommends encouraging students to contribute to general items, where there’s not that much depth of interest. For example, “Realigning Election,” on the topic of political realignments.

Given that academics generally consider Wikipedia an unreliable source, and try to discourage students from going there, why should faculty encourage students to use Wikipedia? For one reason, because we can’t stop them.

Daniel discussed additional reasons:

  1. Make students contribute to Wikipedia. They’ll discover how unreliable it is.
  2. It’s a good writing assignment, and you can require the highest level of scholarly documentation.
  3. The visibility of work “published” at Wikipedia makes them care more about the quality of their work. This applies peer pressure to encourage better quality work.
  4. Working on Wikipedia performs a real public service. Responds to the academic responsibility for getting our (specialized) knowledge out to the general public. Their work improves the quality of Wikipedia as a resource for other students.

Daniel recommends encouraging students to work on articles where there is general interest; that is, where there is a breadth of interest without a fanatical depth of interest. Working in a limited domain of knowledge helps, too, since it will be less open to controversy, for example over what is or is not important. He also noted a snowball effect. Since Wikipedia reports new articles, longer, more detailed articles tend to attract more participation from volunteers on Wikipedia.

This reminds us that Wikipedia is part of a social network, and there are ways to show respect to the community when writing or editing Wikipedia articles. When students edit a page, they should enter information into an Edit summary, describing their change and explaining why they made the change. It’s even better to use the Discussion tab, to talk about a proposed change, and how they think it will improve an item.

Students don’t often start an article from scratch; usually there’s a “stub” for a topic. Students can search for a topic, and if that topic is not found, they’re automatically given the option for creating a new page. Another important suggestion Daniel makes about having students work on Wikipedia is that it’s better not to start a new page with just a couple of paragraphs and a plan to come back later to complete the article. Such token articles may simply be killed by volunteer editors. Daniel recommends having students work in groups, and to have them prepare a well-written, well-cited article, and then upload it in its more complete form.

Daniel also addressed the issue of assessment. How should faculty grade students who work on Wikipedia articles? They should be evaluated as other written assignments are evaluated, starting with standard issues such as punctuation, spelling, and grammar, and then consider principles of academic writing, such as whether an item is well-sourced, proper citations are provided, and so on. Then consider which course this work is for, at what level and how specialized a topic, and such matters. He discouraged focusing too much on quantitative factors, since that seems to encourage students to focus on meeting those expectations narrowly. He also requires print outs for students’ work, which is particularly important, given that Wikipedia entries are always subject to change by someone else.

Daniel said that for his freshman and sophomore students, he prefers to have them work on Wiki projects in a “walled garden,” a private Wiki, which everyone can read, but only FDU professors and students can edit. He’s found pbwiki to be a good, free platform. He’s created his own Wiki: fdupolitics.pbwiki.com which anyone can read, but only those with a User ID and password can edit. Educators can quickly create their own Wiki, and share the password with their students. Work that’s available online through a course Wiki can become part of the study guide for students for that course.


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