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.
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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.
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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.