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Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors

23 October 2017

From EdSurge:

A decade ago professors complained of a growing “epidemic” in education: Wikipedia. Students were citing it in papers, while educators largely laughed it off as inaccurate and saw their students as lazy, or worse. As one writing instructor posted to an e-mail list in 2005: “Am I being a stick-in-the-mud for for being horrified by students’ use of this source?”

How things have changed. Today, a growing number of professors have embraced Wikipedia as a teaching tool. They’re still not asking students to cite it as a source. Instead, they task students with writing Wikipedia entries for homework, exposing the classwork to a global audience (and giving students an outside edit by an army of Wikipedia volunteers). There’s even a new peer-reviewed academic journal about using Wikipedia in higher education.

One of the biggest proponents of the power of Wikipedia in the classroom is Robert Cummings, associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. He even wrote a book about the topic, called “Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.” EdSurge talked with Cummings about how Wikipedia has changed his teaching and why he thinks professors are changing their attitude about the anyone-can-edit resources.

. . . .

EdSurge: How did you first come to use Wikipedia in your teaching? The anyone-can-edit encyclopedia once had a horrible reputation among academics, and people joked that, “Oh, you can’t trust this thing. Maybe it’s just nobodies sitting their basements writing nonsense.”

Cummings: That’s absolutely right. You have to remember that in that time period, Web 2.0 was a revolutionary concept. The idea that we would contribute content to the internet was still pretty unusual. When people found out that Wikipedia was edited by everyone who just desired to edit, that was a conflict with the way knowledge is valued in higher education.

The Wikipedia process is what I would call public review (everyone’s invited to contribute), while the higher-education process is what we call peer review, where only a limited number of people who are qualified experts are able to comment on knowledge in the peer-reviewed process.

What we’re learning over time is that, of course, Wikipedia had and still has problems with accuracy and relevance. If you go to a slowly-trafficked area on Wikipedia, you might find spotty quality. In fact, you definitely will find spotty quality.

But if you go to a highly-trafficked area and the process is working, then you do find high-quality information, and the immediacy and the availability of that high-quality information makes it a compelling proposition. That’s why it has endured and overcome a lot of significant obstacles.

. . . .

I hear more often these days about teaching with free online materials instead of traditional textbooks (known as OER). Do you see a connection between the growing interest in that and the idea of assigning students to write for Wikipedia?

Absolutely. It’s a continuing spectrum. The OER conversation is very energized right now, and it’s a complex conversation. I tend to focus on aspects of OER depending on the audience. If I’m talking to students about OER, I usually tend to focus on cost because OER is either free or much cheaper, typically, than a traditionally copyrighted textbook, and so students are initially most interested in cost, as are their parents.

When I talk with faculty about OER, I tend to talk about how OER is just a better teaching-and-learning resource—a better teaching-and-learning experience. One important factor is that content in the course through the OER process tends to be much more customized, so the teachers are teaching with texts and resources that are tailored to the outcomes of that course.

When professors use a traditionally-copyrighted textbook, the publisher has tried to put in as much content as they possibly can to make sure that there’s no teacher out there that wouldn’t want to adopt that text. It becomes a very large kitchen-sink approach. The faculty member has usually become very accustomed to taking chapters here and there that fit their particular approach to that class. What we’ve forgotten over time is how confusing that is for a learner because you’re already in a state of confusion because you’re introduced to new concepts, but when you have to follow them through a textbook to get to the information you need, it’s an additional barrier.

Link to the rest at EdSurge and thanks to Mary for the tip.

Ebooks in Education

15 Comments to “Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors”

  1. I hope some people also find it possible to contribute dollars (or pounds or euros or yen – I’ll bet they aren’t picky) to the costs of Wikipedia.

  2. No. At least, this teacher strongly discourages her students from going to Wiki. They don’t know enough yet to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the times I’ve seen them lean on Wiki, they got bad data. Perhaps it is just unfortunate coincidences.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      I think this guy’s schtick is having his students write for Wikipedia, not use it for their research.

      They’re still not asking students to cite it as a source. Instead, they task students with writing Wikipedia entries for homework . . .

      (emphasis mine)

      I imagine he may well share your opinion on using for a source.

  3. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource – for certain things.

    If I need to know the structure and behavior of, say, benzodiaphenol (yes, I did just make that up) – it almost certainly will have everything I need, and it will be accurate. Usually with references to more “acceptable” sources if I really have the need to get down into the weeds and visit the appropriate university library.

    On politics, economics, sociology (the “fuzzy” sciences) – no. One merely has to read the Talk page to see the biases. They are mostly, though not always, quite left-wing.

    For people currently prominent, or prominent within about the last century, it is completely useless. The same for corporations.

    • The one thing that I find Wikipedia generally gets right about prominent people is their dates of birth and death, and whether they are still alive. If I should forget the birthday of my favourite musician, Groovitude Herrero, it’s a good place to look. Also adequate for discographies. Anything else is pretty much opinion (of one political stripe, as you note) and should not be trusted.

      • It can also be good for list-building of certain types, as long as you don’t need it to be comprehensive.

        For example, “I’m writing a book with a character who frequently references a bunch of cryptids. I know about the yeti and the Loch Ness monster, but I’d like to have him reference some more obscure ones now and then.” Wikipedia has a list of cryptids; maybe not comprehensive, but there are a lot of them.

  4. I find it useful as a place to start research, or if I just need a quickie fact.

    I adore it because it carries NO ads. If I ever make more than costs, I plan to donate to the site.

  5. I have very mixed feelings. Yes, I have donated a small amount to Wikipedia and sometimes find it useful–along with other sites–in researching my novels.

    However, a few years ago, I had been commissioned by a publisher to write a biographical section for a coffee-table book about my mother, Sylvia Hyman, a well-known ceramic sculptor (the Smithsonian has two of her pieces). From this, I condensed a version–based on numerous sources, including her notes, published articles about her, etc.–only to be told by Wikipedia that I could not post it because I was related to her, and they would rather wait for some “objective” third party to come along.

    A few years later, after her death, Wikipedia posted a garbled article filled with errors, right down to screwing up my brother’s name (yes, that basic). I fixed what I could but was too disgusted at this point to spend much time on it.

    Caveat lector.

    • Ouch. This is the second time I’ve heard that Wikipedia doesn’t take primary sources directly. With another person, who the article was about, he had to post whatever the factoid was on another site. I gathered Wikipedia is against “I said / My mom said,” but rather prefers, “As said on Some Webite / My mom’s website says.”

      I prefer to just use Wikipedia as a jumping off point or to check things that aren’t controversial. The Mohs Scale of emeralds? Yes. The history of the late Bronze Age collapse? Skim for keywords so I can search elsewhere for information.

  6. Wikipedia is a fun source for inspiration, when it comes to writing novels, but it cannot be trusted. I routinely harvest wiki pages as pdf so I can use them later. If I don’t harvest the pages right then an edit can wipe out the information I found interesting.

    As example:

    A decade ago, there was a great entry explaining what Michael Crichton did in his novels. It was clear, coherent, a brilliant insight, then a year later it was gone. I just looked now, and the basic information was back, so I made a new pdf dated for today so that I don’t lose it again. HA!

    If you want to read articles about the problems with Wikipedia start with The Register. They have stuff going back since the dawn of Wiki.

    Happy birthday: Jimbo Wales’ sweet 16 Wikipedia fails
    From aardvark to Bicholim, the encylopedia of things that never were
    By Andreas Kolbe 16 Jan 2017 at 10:07

    Essentially, as the story goes:

    When Google first started they built up a huge database of websites. The problem is, they knew that a third of their results were bogus, span, corrupted, they just didn’t know which third. This was a crisis that if unsolved would sink Google.

    – Along comes Wikipedia, the savior.

    Google made Wikipedia the preferred result of most searches, thus people had the illusion that their question was answered. Google is then perceived as a great search engine, when in reality a third of their results are still garbage, and they are depending on people finding the Wikipedia result as satisfying.

    Next time that you do a search on Google, run your search as usual, find the answer that you need, then try something for fun. Run your search again, but put -Wikipedia at the end of your search string. The “-“(minus sign) means “not” so you are searching but “not” on Wikipedia.

    Look at some of the results and that will show you how sad and pathetic the Google search results really are, and how Wikipedia has been elevated to the undeserved, high ranking, status that it has.

    Now, to add to the irony:

    If you use search on The Register site, you will have a hard time finding the wiki articles. If you use Google and enter the following string you will find tons of stuff.

    google +wikipedia site:theregister.co.uk

    This is the article that explains what happened. I only found it again once I used Google. HA!

    Google kicks Wikipedia in the googlies
    Move over, Jimbo – we’re in the content biz now

    By Andrew Orlowski 14 Dec 2007 at 16:31

    • Oh, so that’s why Wikipedia always comes up first? Interesting. The searches I like to exclude are Pinterest, by a wide mile, and Quora. I just scrolled past the Wikipedia results.

  7. I’ve never believed anything or anybody. Until I have checked it out, it’s all snake oil to me. Just the way I am. If you tell me it’s white, the first thing I will do is get a photometer and check it out.

    When I was in the 6th grade, the principal said that if I fell in the river and drowned, he would drag upstream. (Did he steal that from Samuel Clemons? I don’t recall that our principal was that smart.)

    I find Wikipedia extremely useful. It is usually the first place I go for information, but this is the 21st Century and it is just a starting point. You cannot trust any source blindly. I seldom take Wikipedia at face value. I follow up the footnotes, check the talk pages, and figure out where the information is coming from and who is driving it. Exercise the search engines.

    Forty years ago, I was forced to be more naive– I tended to trust encyclopedias and other reference sources more because questioning them was harder, but I am not convinced they were any more reliable than Wikipedia is now.

    Today, due diligence is easier. Compared to chasing from library to library, flipping through card catalogs, and badgering reference librarians, following up cross references via the network is easy and fast. I think by starting from Wikipedia and following the info-chains with a critical eye, I get more reliable information, and at least an order of magnitude faster than I did forty years ago.

    It’s hard work and you have to test everything every way you can, but you always did. It’s easier today.

    Today, I drive less and discover more.

    • Very goo d point Democritus “but I am not convinced they were any more reliable than Wikipedia is now.” Very good insight.

      And you are right, we used to chase and travel sometimes afar to libraries, and yes it is a gift to be able to examine docs and references from workroom home….’drive less, discover more’ — very astute. And a pretty good slogan as well as a selling point…

  8. wikipedia is fraught with inaccuracies; it is a mess. I just read an article, or tried to, about waves [science]. A mess. Half is wrong, even though citations given.

    I watch the zillions of persons rearranging and re-re arranging article text incesssantly. I see the philosophical divisions. I see people brag they have done over ‘10,000’ wiki texts. Too much ego. Too little factual knowledge. Too much tilting toward the writer’s own personal view. Too little evenhandedness.

    Wikipedia, I would never quote from it for a paper or book that is going to be read by knowledgable readers, as in science, or history, for instance, let alone biography or the defacements of certain articles of history that I see far too often. Supposedly the ‘wiki’ robot picks these up. Doubt it.

    The value is often found in the citations which can be weighed on a far more factual scale.

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