Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors

Digital Learning

Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 17, 2017

Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors
Robert Cummings, associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi

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.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

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.

In fact, if you look at Wikipedia today, and if you just think about it as a web platform, it has not really kept up in a lot of significant ways. It doesn't incorporate video well. There's a lot of things about the Wikimedia platform that people who work on it are quite aware of and trying to improve, but it still comes down to discussions about text, and when you're having a discussion about long-form text, it really remains a strong platform for that.

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.

Do you think teaching with OER or Wikipedia changes the way you teach?

Absolutely. Some folks who hold a foundationalist view of teaching and learning say, "The teacher is the authority. The teacher is the trained expert, and then the teacher delivers the knowledge to the classroom, and the classroom consumes the knowledge that the teacher delivers.” It's not my perspective. Others have that and that's fine.

Those people who have that perspective, though, are probably going to not jump on board with the idea of collaborating around creating the classroom content and using the open educational practices.

I like to say to my students that if you're a college graduate, you're not only an information consumer, you're an information producer, and so what I should be doing in my classroom is structuring it so that we practice information-production together, and I give you a place to do that where you have guidance in creating that information, so open education practices respect that type of collaboration and that type of practice for producing information.

I’ve enjoyed finding my students motivated to deliver information to an audience [by writing Wikipedia articles]. They became concerned with writing details, then they became concerned with grammar, then they became concerned with organization, because they want to be effective in terms of delivering a message for an audience.

I’ve heard Wikipedia editors can be pretty strict.

This is true. Some Wikipedia education projects have had problems with this. A bad assignment is one that asks a lot of students to do editing without really understanding the Wikipedia community. [the students] make edits which are damaging, and then they have a grade motivation for making sure that those edits stick [so they repost every time an editor remove their additions]. So then the Wikipedia editors are running around trying to take down the bad content—because maybe it's a copyright violation or because as I mentioned earlier, it was just ill-conceived as original research or a novel proposition.

At any rate, those folks on Wikipedia, they're volunteers. They're working on Wikipedia because they care about the content and they care about the community, but if you have a poorly-designed assignment that doesn't understand Wikipedia, and then you motivate students to contribute poorly, it's sort of like weaponizing ill-conceived content, and it could be really bad.

It just feels like with the controversies around fake news during the last presidential election, it seems like there’s a new level of difficulty agreeing on facts. These are questions Wikipedia has been struggling with since it was created.

Oh, unquestionably. When Wikipedia was first came out and was first reviewed in 2001. It was seen and had been derided as inaccurate, but now we've come full circle because Wikipedia is one of the few examples and perhaps the most successful examples of online collaboration around facts and verifying facts among people who have different points of view.

In so many social-media camps, people just go to find a reaffirmation of what they believed before they logged on. In Wikipedia, that doesn't happen because of the encyclopedia format. There are plenty of arguments and plenty of spats between people, but there's an overall process for determining what we can agree on as a common set of facts and then walking away from the things that we can't agree on.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up