The University and Wikipedia

This post is a continuation of my series of posts about Wikipedia. I began with a general overview, and then discussed the relationship between Wikipedia and “the expert.” Today I turn to a specific species of expert: academics. I’ll consider what academics have said about Wikipedia, survey a few books about the site, and then discuss some ways it has been used in the classroom. I’ll end with the Wikipedia Education Program, a formal attempt to forge a connection between Wikipedia and the academy.

As always, feedback is welcome: if you know of something even tangentially related to Wikipedia, and that would be of interest to undergraduates, please let me know!

Academics on Wikipedia

The historian Roy Rosenzweig, founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, wrote what is probably the most-cited academic article about Wikipedia, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” Recognizing that “somehow thousands of dispersed volunteers who do not know each other have organized a massive enterprise,” Rosenzweig is interested both in the history of the site and in what it means for professional historians. After an overview of the site, Rosenzweig focuses primarily on entries in American history, assessing their accuracy in comparison to other reference works (Encarta, Britannica, and American National Biography Online).

The latter part of Rosenzweig’s essay considers what Wikipedia might mean for professional historians: whether they should worry about their students visiting the site, or whether they contribute. This part of his article is of great interest to specialists, less interest to others. But the point is worth considering. Academics and other experts in their fields do of course contribute to Wikipedia. “Edit-a-thons,” in which groups get together to improve targeted sections of Wikipedia, have become popular lately (Adeline Koh explains them here), and at least one scholar who has contributed extensively to the site lists her Wikipedia contributions on her online CV, on top of more traditional academic work.

Wikipedia has also been the subject of much academic research. As Rosenzweig notes, an important “implication of Wikipedia‘s implementation of free and open-source software principles is that its content is available to be downloaded, manipulated, and ‘data mined’—something not possible even with many resources (newspapers, for example) that can be read free online.” Several academics have assessed the quality of information on Wikipedia. I mentioned the 2005 Nature article in my first post, and the same year Besiki Stvilia, Michael B. Twidale, Les Gasser and Linda C. Smith from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign collaborated on a paper, “Information Quality Discussions in Wikipedia,” investigating the way in which quality is discussed on the talk pages. In “Mining Meaning from Wikipedia” (2008) New Zealanders Olena Medelyan, Catherine Legg, David Milne, and Ian H. Witten surveyed various kinds of research about Wikipedia, dividing their findings into four categories: “applying Wikipedia to natural language processing; using it to facilitate information retrieval and information extraction; and as a resource for ontology building.” Several Digital Humanities projects have also used Wikipedia summaries, like this one (PDF) about character types in films.

Books about Wikipedia

Even in today’s Internet culture, experts write books. It’s no surprise, then, that avowed experts about Wikipedia have written books about the site (which has its own page for books about Wikipedia). Not all these books are necessarily academic. Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (2007), an expansion of his earlier essay in The Weekly Standard (see my last post), received a lot of press when it came out. The subtitle gives away Keen’s viewpoint. Less critical is Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia (2009), which boasts a foreword by Jimmy Wales and offers a “popular history” of the first eight years of Wikipedia’s existence. Phoebe Ayers’s How Wikipedia Works and How You Can Be a Part of It (2008) and John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (2008) serve as how-to guides about using Wikipedia. Other books about crowdsourcing in general often touch on Wikipedia. These include James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (2004); Cass R. Sunstein, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (2006); and James Gleick’s wonderful The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2012).

More academic books include the linguist Andrew Dalby’s The World and Wikipedia: How We Are Editing Reality (2009), which looks at earlier encyclopedias and then takes an anecdotal approach to explore Wikipedia’s impact on culture. Historian Dan O’Sullivan’s Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? (2009) draws on critics like Habermas, Michael Warner, and Roland Barthes. He begins with a consideration of earlier, similar projects: the Library of Alexandria,the Royal Society, Diderot and the Republic of Letters, the Oxford English Dictionary, and (oddly, since it doesn’t seem to fit) the 1930s-era British communist publishing group, the Left Book Club. O’Sullivan discusses each group’s aims; its community and constituents; its costs of doing business (transaction costs); its relations with the public; and its legacy. He then turns to Wikipedia itself, applying these same criteria and devoting a chapter to each one. Of particular interest is his chapter on the structure of Wikipedia (which gives a nice overview of the “talk” pages).

Joseph Michael Reagle, Jr.’s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (2010), reviewed by Paul Youngquist in Symploke and available online, also considers the history of Wikipedia, but with more focus on the 20th century. His prose is denser than O’Sullivan’s, but his research is also more nuanced. His chapter “The Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia” begins with Paul Otlet, a “father of information science” responsible for the index-card system we remember from pre-computer libraries, and H. G. Wells, who had dreams about a “world brain” made from microfilm. Reagle goes on to discuss Project Xanadu and Project Gutenberg, which he sees as important precursors, before getting to more explicitly encyclopedic projects like Interpedia and Nupedia, and Wikis. The chapter on “Good Faith Collaboration” intelligently considers the philosophy underlying the project (a favorite saying of Wikipedians: though it works in practice, it could never work in theory). Reagle discusses the ethical and practical implications of two of Wikipedia’s 5 pillars: neutral point of view and the assumption of good faith.

Wikipedia in the Classroom

College professors are innovators, and Wikipedia has become part of the cultural landscape. No wonder, then, that many professors have found innovative ways to use the site in their classes. In 2008 Andy Guess, writing for Inside Higher Ed, revealed the “open secret” that professors use Wikipedia in their courses, asking students to write entries and sometimes even assigning it on their computer science syllabi; I’ve talked about my own Wikipedia assignment on this blog. Even middle-school teachers have brought Wikipedia into the classroom.

George Mason history professor T. Mills Kelly is responsible for what I consider the most interesting assignment involving Wikipedia, which he developed for his course “Lying about the Past.” As part of the class students created an online hoax, including fake Wikipedia pages. The best descriptions of the class and its aftermath are this article in The Atlantic and this one in the Morning News. It’s ultimate demise was covered in The Chronicle, and Mills Kelly wrote about the class on his blog: in August 2008 he warned readers about the coming hoax; in December 2008 he described what happened and shared his students’ projects; and in March 2013 he explained why George Mason wouldn’t be making the class part of the regular curriculum.

Plenty of people were angry with Mills Kelly, and he was temporarily chased off the Internet by trolls (even shutting down his Twitter account and blog). But even more benign incursions of Wikipedia into the classroom have met with some resistance. In 2007, Middlebury College made headlines for taking a stand against Wikipedia, after a professor in a Japanese history course noticed several of his students making a very of claim. Jimmy Wales responded with his oft-made claim that no encyclopedia should be cited in a college paper, whether it’s Wikipedia or Brittanica (among the interesting results of this story was the coverage on the talk page of the Wikipedia article in question). Wales has been critical of higher education, and especially of the continued reliance on lectures.

The Wikipedia Education Program

All of the examples discussed above are the work of individual professors, with no formal link to Wikipedia. That’s changing, at least for some professors. In 2010 Wikimedia (the non-profit that operates Wikipedia) started the Wikipedia Education Program. As a kind of pilot program, nine professors agreed to make editing Wikipedia part of their college class. The launch was covered by Inside Higher Ed, among other places. Neil Ungerleider, writing for Fast Company, argued that the program’s major payoff for Wikipedia is in its recruitment of speakers of languages other than English, especially in Brazil and in the Arab world.

Wikimedia offers a syllabus and course plan, claiming the benefits of a Wikipedia assignment over a traditional term paper:

In contrast to their standard term paper audience of one (you), successful students will have the opportunity to showcase their work on the Main Page, attracting hundreds — and in some cases, thousands — of readers. Wikipedia assignments give students an unparalleled opportunity to excel; the more effort they pour into Wikipedia, the more feedback they will get from the Wikipedia community.

Wikimedia also makes suggestions for assignments and presents case studies of others who have used Wikipedia in classes.

Professors like Mills Kelly design assignments by considering the benefits to their students: the “damage” to Wikipedia was an unfortunate side effect. Because it is sponsored by the non-profit Wikimedia, the Wikipedia Education Program adds another element: while Wikipedia assignments no doubt benefit students in the ways claimed, they also benefit Wikipedia itself. For some teachers this may imply a conflict of interest — there’s now a player for whom students’ learning isn’t the primary agenda. This is the kind of controversy that often arises around the site, and I’ll discuss some others next week.


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