Why smart profs want students to use Wikipedia

It encourages research, citation, revision...

Wikipedia is an outcast on most university campuses. At the beginning of the semester, most professors mention that it’s banished from essays and assignments. If you dare to include a Wikipedia article on your reference list, you’re practically asking for a zero on your bibliography. In extreme cases, your professor might set your essay on fire and scatter the ashes across the Pacific Ocean. That’s because most profs regard Wikipedia’s crowdsourced articles as unreliable.

Despite the website’s reputation, some professors at schools like the University of Alberta are using Wikipedia as a teaching resource. Never mind using Wikipedia as a reference: these profs are actually replacing traditional essays with assignments where students write Wikipedia entries.

Why the turnaround? For one thing, writing Wikipedia articles offers students some unique learning opportunities. “In addition to getting all the benefits from a traditional research assignment, (students) are also learning new media literacy skills. They’re being exposed to a growing Wiki culture, and they’re being exposed to a very real and very relevant social media phenomenon,” Jonathan Obar, Wikipedia’s education coordinator for Canada, told The Gateway student newspaper. By ‘very relevant social media phenomenon,’ Obar might be referring to the fact that Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website around the world.

Another advantage to using Wikipedia in the classroom is that students get a larger audience for their writing. A 2,000 word term paper on the metaphysical significance of Yorick’s skull in Hamlet might take a lot of work, but it’s probably only going to be read by one person: the prof or a TA.

In contrast, an article on Wikipedia has a much larger potential audience. A student at Georgetown University wrote an article about the democratic party in Egypt as a term paper for his class. After the revolution in Egypt, the article received more than 100,000 hits. An added bonus is that students produce more accurate work when they’re writing for Wikipedia’s public audience, according to Brenna Gray, an English professor at Douglas College in suburban Vancouver.

The ability to make students more careful should be enough to convince more profs that Wikipedia is a useful teaching tool. For those who need more, consider this: Gray says Wikipedia encourages research, citations and revision, all of which are “ideals espoused by English instructors.”