June 1, 2011

Students' Use of Wikipedia

Wikipedia was started in 2001, and within five years had about a million articles in it.  Which sounds like a lot until you look at their graph of contributions, which more than tripled from 2006 to today.  At 3.5 million articles and growing, Wikipedia has become an incredibly useful source of information.

While some professors dislike the ease with which students can find (and plagiarize) information from Wikipedia, I use it nearly every day as a jumping-off point for some topic, and I encourage students to do the same: to gain basic familiarity with a topic or concept by reading a bit about it before plunging into library research.  If you know nothing about a topic, it is quite difficult to critically examine what people have written about it.

For an extra credit assignment in my Bioarchaeology class way back in 2006, I asked students to contribute a few paragraphs to a Wikipedia article.  This was rather a loose assignment, which you can see here, suggesting a number of bioarchaeology-related terms and topics that they could refine.  Out of a class of 25 students, only two took me up on this extra credit opportunity.  Interestingly, most of their work is still there five years on - Lara started the page on middle-range theory in archaeology, and Cameron created the page on palaeodemography.  The other topics suggested in my assignment - like zooarchaeology and (Native American) ossuary - surprisingly still need people to shore them up.

So I was excited to come across a news piece today on how "Wikipedia improves students' work."  Canadian college instructor Brenna Gray found that students do better research if you ask them to write for Wikipedia rather than for just their instructor, and she presented her research this weekend at Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New Brunswick. The press release summarizes her work as follows:

[Gray] decided to get first-year students in an English class to write short biographies of Canadian writers that would then be posted on Wikipedia. 
What she found was that the moment the students realized their work was going public in a forum over which they had no control, they took the work a lot more seriously. They became concerned, for example, with the accuracy of facts. 
Gray says it's not only the fact that their work was going public that stimulated the students, it was the realization that in producing the Wikipedia entries they were acquiring skills that were transferable to other parts of their lives.
[...] Because the Wikipedia skills are perceived as transferable, students became interested in acquiring them. And they were willing to work to Wikipedia's standards.
I have to admit that I haven't contributed much to Wikipedia myself.  But I am seriously considering resurrecting this assignment in my future classes - as a requirement rather than an extra credit project.  First, though, I'll have to find some more bioarch topics that are missing or are stubs.


Nancy Lovell said...

I had my paleopathology class contribute to a paleopathology wiki (hosted on wikispaces) instead of writing term papers. They really enjoyed it! I'll be taking the site public in the fall, after debuting at the Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology meeting in Montreal in October.

Bone Girl said...

That's a cool idea, Nancy. Do remember to send me a link when you take it public, as I'll be teaching a palaeopath course in the fall myself.

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