Monday, May 30, 2011

Have some Wikipedia

From the Washington Post: Wikipedia goes to class:

This school year, dozens of professors from across the country gave students an unexpected assignment: Write Wikipedia entries about public policy issues.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the Web site, organized the project in an effort to bulk up the decade-old online encyclopedia’s coverage of topics ranging from the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Such issues have been treated on the site in much less depth than TV shows, celebrity biographies and other elements of pop culture.

Many students involved in the project have received humbling lessons about open-source writing as their work was revised, attacked or deleted by anonymous critics with unknown credentials.

In the fall, Rochelle A. Davis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, told undergraduates in her culture and politics course to create a Wikipedia page about a community they belonged to, then use that research to develop a thesis for an academic paper.

Very, very cool. That's the assignment I wish I'd been given when I was an undergrad (in the Late Pre-Wikipedian Age).

If I taught undergrads, I would have a strict rule: No citing Wikipedia in research papers. Violators would be severely mocked and ridiculed.

But - and this is a key distinction, one that sometimes seems lost on people - I wouldn't prohibit students from using Wikipedia as a research tool. No, I would actively encourage it. Obviously they'd be using it anyway even if I did prohibit it, but there really is no reason to forbid it.

I can hear a time traveler from 2006 complaining that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and so you have no way of knowing the veracity of any information you find. I say, we're talking about college undergrads here. If they're not yet savvy enough to (usually) tell the difference between reliable sources of information and Internet-based nonsense, then they don't need to be sheltered, they need to be made able to distinguish the good from the bad. Quickly.

And having to deal with edit wars, nitpickers, editors who have their own personal agendas, and humorless admins? Hey, that's real life. It's useful experience for those undergrads.

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