College students know the online resource of which they dare not speak: Wikipedia, the voluminous internet encyclopedia demonized by many in higher education—and a resource that two University of Denver instructors use as a centerpiece of their curriculum.
Denver journalism students are writing Wikipedia entries as part of a curriculum that stresses online writing and content creation as readers move to the web en masse.
Journalism instructors Lynn Schofield Clark and Christof Demont-Heinrich said students are told to check their sourcing carefully, just as they would for an assignment at a local newspaper.
“There’s a sense of anxiety about it, because professors have a pretty negative attitude toward Wikipedia,” said Demont-Heinrich, who first assigned the Wikipedia writing to students in his introductory course taught during the university’s recent winter semester.
“Students are leery about mentioning Wikipedia, because they might be subjected to criticism. … But I tell them it’s an online source of knowledge that just has some information that might be questionable, but that doesn’t mean you have to dismiss all of [its content].”
Students in the university’s Media, Film, and Journalism Studies Department have composed 24 Wikipedia articles this year, covering everything from the gold standard to San Juan Mountains to bimettalism, an antiquated monetary standard.
Demont-Heinrich said the Wikipedia entries didn’t require old-school shoe leather reporting—because the online encyclopedia bars the use of original quotes—but they taught students how to thoroughly research a topic before publishing to a site viewed by more than 68 million people a month.
“I see journalism as being completely online within the next two to five years,” he said. “If you’re not trained to expect that and write for that, then you’re not going to be ready for the work world.”
The popular Ivory Tower belief that Wikipedia’s bottom-up approach to content creation and editing is unreliable and unfit for research in part drove Demont-Heinrich to assign his students Wikipedia writing assignments.
“One of the reasons I wanted to assign [writing Wikipedia entries] is to combat that view,” he said. “I tell students to use it as an information portal … and you can see what information has been sourced and see that they’re reliable sources. Wikipedia can be a great resource.”
Research published this month in the journal First Monday showed that eight out of 10 students surveyed said they used Wikipedia for background knowledge. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they frequently used the web-based collaborative encyclopedia, “even if an instructor advised against it.”
Twenty-two percent said they rarely or never used the site. Only 17 percent of student respondents said they used Wikipedia because it was more reliable than other web sites.
About 2,300 students responded to the survey, according to the First Monday web site.
“Students reported they could not begin their research process until they had an idea of what they were going to write about,” the study said. “They did not think that they could approach an instructor about an assignment, until they knew more about their topic. They did not use a scholarly research database early on, given the specificity of academic journal content.”
The study continued: “Wikipedia was a convenient go-to source under these circumstances. The source delivered results students could act upon, allowing them to get unstuck and move forward.”
Chelsea Clement, a junior communications major at Denver who wrote a Wikipedia entry on a ski resort near her hometown of Gobles, Mich., said writing and posting her article was not as complex as she thought.
“I was surprised I could do it, and it was much simpler than I expected,” says Clement, who is in Demont-Heinrich’s class.
Michela Altergott, a senior digital media studies major in Schofield Clark’s class, said sifting through mounds of digital information about the Denver Depression of 1893 proved time consuming. Finding legitimate sources for an article that could be read anywhere in the world, she said, was a challenging assignment.
“I never considered how much research and knowledge actually has to go into a Wikipedia article to make them good sources,” Altergott says. “It was actually very tough researching the subject and turning it into a coherent entry for Wikipedia.”
The University of Denver isn’t the only campus asking students to contribute to Wikipedia’s 3.2 million English language articles. Mikhail Lyubansky, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Illinois, recently urged his students to write a Wikipedia entry on the class textbook for the current spring semester.
Lyubansky said contributing to Wikipedia’s knowledge pool fits well in higher education’s mission.
“It’s not a scientific peer-reviewed process, and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s never going to be … but students can contribute to the learning of others, and that’s really cool.”
Douglas Giles, a philosophy professor at Elmhurst College outside of Chicago, said the gratification of seeing course work published on one of the internet’s most widely read sites could serve as a motivating factor for college students learning their craft.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing for writing students or anyone who goes into a field where their job is to create content,” said Giles, who recommends Wikipedia citations in his students’ research projects, but requires multiple sources. “You can actually see the results of your work and see how they’ll fare in the wide world.”
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