My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 3


posted before about the class response to their “greatest insight” gained from participation in the Wikipedia as a Research Tool course at the University of Memphis this past semester.  Here is my first post on the course that provides background on how I constructed the class and shifts in student thinking about Wikipedia over the semester.

This week, I take up a second question on their final exam where students recommended changes for the next time I teach the course.  Below is a representative sample of student responses along with my thoughts.

What about this class did not work for you?  How would you improve the course if offered in the future?

“I would improve the course by having students create articles from the (Wikipedia) list of requested pages. I feel it would be easier to have something to go off of . . . versus having students create an article on their own.  I noticed at the beginning of the semester, a lot of people were simply editing the articles for their high school. I knew very little about creating an article, let alone a music or album article, and therefore got to experience a lot more in-depth about how to create one. It was actually a lot of fun getting to mess around and figure stuff out, like figuring out how to create a track list or adding an album cover. I feel that if everyone stepped out of their comfort zones and did an article that required more than just adding a few sentences, they would get a better experience of editing an article and starting from scratch.”

The Wikipedia 12-week syllabus for article creation allows students to get half-way through the course before getting serious about the topic of the article they will produce.  Although I directed students to the request for articles page early in the course, the formal structure of the 12-week syllabus allowed for procrastination.  The focus on creating a page was in some ways a detriment to the process.  Some students created excellent pages and others not.  In hindsight, the expectation that all students will create an article results in inevitable substandard pieces being loaded to Wikipedia’s public space that will ultimately be deleted.   Simple fixes for this problem include:

  • to not set a mandatory sequential timeframe as the current 12-week syllabus does for moving the student article from the sandbox to a live page.
  • require instructor approval for moving the article from the sandbox to the live page.
  • or require students to submit their articles to the formal Wikipedia editorial process when moving the pieces from the sandbox.

Understanding the coding was difficult for me, and moving my page out of the sandbox and onto a live page posed many challenges. This however, was not a sign of a fault in class, as I was given the tools to resolve these issues. My only suggestion for reducing this problem would be to possibly create a page in class, as an example. This would allow the students to be more familiar with how to complete the tasks above before they had to do it on their own.

This comment flows into a discussion of Marc Prensky’s often cited article Digital Native, Digital Immigrants.  Though informative, the article seems to overstate the divide.  For example, the problems some of the students had with the technology in the class, seem counter to the sweeping generalizations of the divide painted by Prensky.  Simply put, as a Digital Immigrant, I overestimated the digital knowledge of the Digital Natives in the class.

Although I reviewed each step in class, we watched Wikipedia tutorials on same, and students were provided links to reference sheets for every process, some students had a difficult time with the rather simple Wikipedia coding.  Some students remained unaware of the Beta Visual Editor or reference templates, despite being discussed and used as examples in class.

The fixes to the technological concerns include:

  • require students to bring their laptops to class.  Alternatively, the class could be held in a computer lab on campus.
  • although I demonstrated all processes in class on existing articles, some students suggested that I create an article along with them.  This suggestion makes complete sense to me.  I was in error when assuming basic coding would be readily understood by all students.

Also, the course might be improved if the sister projects were emphasized a little more. This is just a personal suggestion because I was unaware of these projects before the class, and I was quite intrigued by them. I think spending a little more time investing some of these could be interesting and would shed more light on just how incredible Wikipedia as a whole is.

I enjoyed the reading journals and giving insight on specific things. The only thing that I really felt myself begging for during the year was just more class discussion. I really enjoyed listening to what my fellow classmates had to say about what they had found in their experiences.

The above two comments get to the essence of the changes I will incorporate in the next iteration of this course.  The course ended up focusing too much on the technical aspects of Wikipedia and not enough on the concept I really wanted to bring to the table – a discussion of user-generated content and open authority as in Lori Byrd Philip’s recent article The Temple and the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums.  Although we did discuss blogs, webinars, MOOCs and related issues, in the future I will spend more time on these topics.

Also Case Studies: How Professors are Teaching with Wikipedia is an excellent alternative resource to the 12-week article writing syllabus.  The assignments in the case studies do not require creating a Wikipedia article but provide experience in the same production skills, such as editing articles and adding photographs or other graphics to existing articles.  These activities seem more suitable for the type of class I taught that met for only one hour, once per week for 15 weeks.

Here are a few summary points on my general experience with the class:

  • The course provided students with an experience in user-generated content where they were required to make decisions and assessments independent of their instructor.  Although successful, I want to push that experience further.  Unfortunately, a considerable amount of time in the classroom and for the students work outside of class got bogged down in technical minutia.  A one-hour per week, one semester course with Freshman, most with very limited experience in user-generated content, proved an insufficient amount of time to both introduce the concept and create the product.
  • Wikipedia video tutorials and information sheets contain somewhat of a mixed message about the real world experience of Wikipedia.  The admonition to “be bold” and abundant notations that you can clean up any mistakes after the fact, while true, is certainly not the position of many of the editors.  While some territoriality, dismissive, and elitist comments are not uncommon on Wikipedia, the majority of editorial comments received by my students were completely in order, supportive, and on target.  Whereas most students produced acceptable or superior products/edits, a significant minority put up articles of poor quality.  In fact, my greatest misgiving in the course was not having safeguards in place, such as noted above, to prevent poor quality articles from going public, that will ultimately be deleted.
  • I am strong proponent of open authority and user-generated content.  Throughout the course, I consistently emphasized that Wikipedia was only being used as an example to examine user-generated content.  Throughout the course for every Jimmy Wales video promoting Wikipedia, we watched a second video that presented a counter perspective.  Ditto for readings.  For example, a third question on the students final exam was to assess Tom Simonite’s The Decline of Wikipedia recently published in the MIT Technology Review.  Given the brevity of the class, I did not include readings or videos that might be termed more as rants or diatribes such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.  However, given today’s polarized sociopolitical climate on almost every issue, there is an apparent need to expand student exposure to these more extreme positions and I will do so in the future.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and look forward to a revised course offering for the fall of 2014.

My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 2


I posted last week about the class I led this semester, Wikipedia as a Research Tool with freshman in the Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  That post provided background on how I constructed the class and shifts in student thinking about Wikipedia over the course of the semester.

For a portion of the student’s final exam, they responded to two questions aimed at evaluating the course experience.  First, I asked about the most important insight they gained from the class.  Second, I asked the students to recommend changes for the next time  the course is offered.

Below I present a representative sample of student responses to the first question and my commentary.  Next week, I will follow the same format on the student suggestions about changes for the next time I teach the course.

What was the most important insight you gained from this class?

Perhaps the most consistent insight students listed was that Wikipedia was not the completely unreliable information resource their high school teachers and some of their current college instructors warned them about.

At one point my middle school librarian said that Wikipedia was the devil. As a result, after all these years of being told that Wikipedia was an unreliable resource and that I was not allowed to use it, I just automatically thought that Wikipedia was not reliable.  Learning about how the website is run and that most of the “employees” are in fact volunteers gave me a better insight on the integrity of the website and the people who run it.

The most important insight I learned from the class is that Wikipedia is more trustworthy than I once thought.

I learned many things during this course, but the most important would be evaluating credible sources. Yes, I learned this in previous high school classes, but in college credible sources has a whole new meaning.

Of importance, the student insights were not based on an uncritical acceptance that everything printed on a Wikipedia page is a canonical truth.  Rather, the insights resulted from the examination of Wikipedia articles of the their own choosing, coupled with an appreciation for the editing process.

I saw first hand just how quickly incorrect information or articles without citations were taken down.

I did not even know that Wikipedia could be edited by everyone.   Teahouses and other editors are also available to help anyone create their own Wikipedia edits and articles.

One student’s comments on their own article creation was particularly insightful:

My page is actually being considered for deletion simply because it is too similar to another page. I was not aware of this and actually thought that my page would contain much more information than the one that took over mine.  This was however not the case. I blame the fact that I did not thoroughly read the other page. In all honesty I should have simply made a series of edits to the existing page. After using Wikipedia I have found that if an editor goes in with selfish intentions, he or she may not like he or she finds. Wikipedia is meant to be a place of selfless unbiased information. This would have to be my greatest insight.

Students enjoyed writing their articles, even if they often struggled with formatting and technical issues.  (In fact, technical considerations was the primary area students recommended addressing in future courses.  I will take up this point next week.)

“I actually enjoyed creating a Wikipedia article. I was really stressed and confused in the beginning because I did not know what to expect.  However, as I learned how to edit sections and add information, I began to enjoy creating my article. It was fun to mess around with the layout of the page and deciding what to add. I would consider making another Wikipedia page in my free time.

Some students were critical of their critics.  I will return to this point next week.

It is not so much that becoming a user is difficult, as it is quite simple, but, as demonstrated in many situations with articles presented in class, there are those individuals that seem to be very avid Wikipedia editors, and these people can be somewhat territorial.

Placing such heavy reliance on the community to police itself is a fairly brave approach to moderation, but one which fundamentally breaks apart the long-existing problem of moderators running pages in their own interests rather than those of the community.  While it may not be in its best shape at present, the existing architecture supports a self-sustaining community full of internal checks and balances which, though tedious, serve well to keep the project on task and neutral.  As someone who is very interested in the growth and development of internet culture, especially in the inevitable forming of social cliques and hierarchies, Wikipedia has offered me a new paradigm from which to view the world online.

Students came to an understanding of Wikipedia as user-generated content.

One of the most valuable things I learned from this class definitely had to do with how many people contribute to user-generated sites like Wikipedia. I never realized just how many people were so dedicated to the maintenance and improvement of the site. Even just from observing my own personal page, I noticed edits being made very quickly. This completely surprised me, as I thought my page would probably just stay under the radar since it was not a very popular or controversial topic. Also, I was astonished to realize how well maintained the site is given that there is not a large paid staff. This means that all the countless edits made on the millions of articles are reviewed and adjusted by citizens just like myself.

And finally, students in the course came away with an appreciation of how they can use Wikipedia in their research.  In another part of the final exam I asked the hypothetical:  “In your college level U.S. History class, you are assigned to write a 2000 word paper on the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Will you consult Wikipedia in writing this paper?  If yes, how?  If not, why not?”

Without exception, every student said they would consult Wikipedia as a starting point for further direction in their research.  For example:

The most important insight that I gained from this class is a confirmation of what Wikipedia is actually about. I always knew it was an encyclopedia but most people used it differently. Wikipedia is not a research tool, or a source shopping list, and even though it can be used in those ways, what Wikipedia is really about is being an online encyclopedia. It is simply an online “book” of facts, and these facts are then used to inform people. I do not think that Wikipedia ever had the intention or wanted to become acceptable as a citable source.

 My own greatest insight from the class has to do with how I will teach the class next time.  The one-credit hour course met only once per week for one hour.  I found the 12-week syllabus provided by Wikipedia overly ambitious for some students in the class.  In fact, up to one-half of the articles written by the individual students will ultimately be either deleted or combined with existing articles.  At the same time, half of the class completed articles of worth, and the entire class received a solid introduction to the pros and cons of user-generated content.  I will return to this point next week.