All through high school, Ani Schug was told to steer clear of Wikipedia. Her teachers talked about the popular online encyclopedia “as if it wasn’t serious or trustworthy” and suggested it only be used as a tip sheet.
Imagine her surprise this spring when her American politics professor at Pomona College assigned the class to write detailed entries for Wikipedia instead of traditional term papers.
Turns out it was a lot harder than the students anticipated. Their projects had to be researched, composed and coded to match Wikipedia’s strict protocols. Schug and her classmates wound up citing 218 scholarly legal and newspaper sources for their entry on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations for ballot initiative campaigns.
Then came the really scary step: All their work was posted publicly on Wikipedia for reading and editing by a potentially immense audience.
“It felt more real that other people will be reading us besides just our group and the teacher,” said Schug, 19, who just completed her freshman year at Pomona. “It makes us feel more obligated to do a good job and present the facts in an unbiased way.”
Once the bane of teachers, Wikipedia and entry-writing exercises are becoming more common on college campuses as academia and the online site drop mutual suspicions and seek to cooperate. In at least 150 courses at colleges in the U.S. and Canada, including UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco’s medical school, Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University, students were assigned to create or expand Wikipedia entries this year.
The result, supporters say, has been better researched articles about, for example, the causes of paralyzing strokes and the history of the American West. And, they say, students are becoming better prepared for a future of digital information.
“Even the best research papers get buried in a drawer somewhere,” said Amanda Hollis-Brusky, the Pomona politics professor who assigned the Wikipedia projects. “These make a real contribution to the public discourse.”
When the not-for-profit Wikipedia was started in 2001, the idea was that antiestablishment volunteers — in fact, anyone who could access the Internet — would write and edit its mainly anonymous entries. An unbiased truth was supposed to emerge if enough contributors took part. By contrast, traditional encyclopedias hired expert authors.
But even as its popularity soared among the public, Wikipedia earned a reputation among academics as amateurish, peppered with errors and too open to nasty online spats over content. Wikipedia has tried to repair all that with better safeguards and a wider range of topics.
As part of that effort, Wikipedia has established a San Francisco educational arm that helps colleges tailor class assignments to the site’s technical demands. It trains “Wikipedia Ambassadors” like Char Booth, the Claremont Colleges librarian who aided the Pomona class.
Wikipedia “gets well-written articles from [college] students who are studying the topics and have access to the best literature on the subject and the expertise of professors who can guide them as well,” said LiAnna Davis, a spokeswoman for the Wiki Education Foundation.
Pomona professor Hollis-Brusky and Booth taught students to meet the requirements of tight writing, neutral tone and abundant citations for their projects on such topics as the Federalist Papers , diamond importing laws and the electoral reform group FairVote. The student groups presented their research to the class and displayed their Wikipedia pages on a large screen in a Hahn Hall classroom. The Supreme Court case entry showed that it had attracted about 2,000 viewers in a month.
Even with complaints of mistakes and incompleteness, Wikipedia has a powerful reach. Often the first site suggested by Google searches, it has about 4.5 million English-language entries and 496 million visitors a month worldwide.
Wikipedia “has essentially become too large to ignore,” said Berkeley’s Kevin Gorman, a former student who is the nation’s first “Wikipedian in Residence” at an undergraduate institution.
“It is certainly an initial source of information for a huge number of people,” he said. “For many people, it may be their primary source of information.”
Gorman guides students who are composing Wiki entries as assignments in UC Berkeley’s American Cultures program — requiring classes that deal with ethnic and economic diversity.
Gorman said it is important to expand the ranks of Wikipedia authors and editors beyond its early base of “basically techno, libertarian, white dudes.”
Further symbolizing peace with academia, professional scholarly organizations in sociology, psychological science and communications in recent years have urged members to write Wikipedia articles and to assign students to do so. Other efforts include Wikipedia-writing marathons, such as one sponsored by CalArts’ online magazine, East of Borneo, that focused on topics about the Southern California art world.
Gorman also works with UC San Francisco’s medical school, where professor Amin Azzam runs a month-long elective class for students to improve Wikipedia’s medical information. In the first such class at an American medical school, students have started or revised pages about hepatitis, dementia and alcohol withdrawal syndrome, among others, Azzam said.
The assignments, he explained, are part of young doctors’ “social contract to do good in the world and help patients” learn about health.
In revising and broadening the entry on strokes, medical student Andrew Callen experienced Wikipedia’s argumentative nature. A Wikipedia medical editor, apparently a physician, challenged some of Callen’s technical terminology.
Callen said his language was more precise but conceded after some back and forth that the distinction was not important for lay readers.
“I didn’t take offense at it,” he said. “In a way I appreciated it.”
Writing for Wikipedia, Callen said, is a good way to improve the explanation of complicated science to patients."The more people we can get to edit it, the more accurate the information will be,” he added.
Some skepticism remains.
Doug Hesse, vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English, said Wikipedia’s understandable insistence on neutrality doesn’t allow students to make reasoned arguments and analysis in term papers.
And its reliance on published sources eliminates students’ independent interviews, experiments and research, said Hesse, who heads the University of Denver’s writing program.
At Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, professor of human-computer interaction Robert Kraut has assigned classes to compose Wikipedia chapters in psychology. Students have benefited, he said, but he, too, doesn’t think such assignments will become commonplace.
Compared to regular term papers, Wiki entries require a lot more faculty time to ensure they are ready for online viewing. Some colleges may be put off by the public editing, which Kraut said led to some of his students’ writings getting excised for not following what he considered to be very complicated footnoting rules.
In Pomona College’s politics class, there was no nasty flaming on any class projects, which counted for 35% of the students’ grades, according to Hollis-Brusky. (Most Wikipedia authors use pseudonyms and the Pomona students were urged to do the same to avoid possible privacy violations.)
Freshman Lane Miles, who worked on the FairVote research, said it was doubly satisfying to help build the online encyclopedia. “We are educating ourselves and educating others,” he said.