Stephen Dove, assistant professor of history, knew that assigning his students a Wikipedia project would be both challenging and rewarding. He stated that his impetus for starting this project was to "embrace something that most faculty mark as out of bounds," while also teaching his students applicable and transferable writing and critical thinking skills. He says most students are taught that Wikipedia is bad, that it is not a reliable resource, and that it therefore should not be trusted or used. However, he said that they do not really have an understanding of why that is or that it can also be a useful resource for expanding public knowledge. Dove hoped to nuance some of the negativity surrounding Wikipedia by giving students an opportunity to see for themselves the value in learning the process of creation and editing from behind the scenes.
Dove introduced the project as a way for students to see the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia, to gain knowledge outside the classroom, and ultimately to share that knowledge with others. As part of a larger research project in his Modern Latin American History course, each student was instructed to research a particular topic or person and then create an entry on Wikipedia about their chosen topic or person.
Through this opportunity, students were able to experience spreading their own knowledge by contributing to a virtual community, learning how to adjust their writing style to different genres, and generally overcoming the challenges of creating work for public consumption. For some of Dove's students, this assignment created much angst. Skepticism surrounding the validity of working with Wikipedia initially challenged many students in their willingness to buy into the project, yet by the end of the project, Dove states, "several of my students could not have been more eager to call mom and say 'look what I did'."
Some of Dove's students were able to create an entry, only to have it removed, altered, or folded into another entry when Wikipedia editors deemed it "political", "non-essential", or "irrelevant." Though this process might seem to have been distressing for students, in fact, it was through this sequence of revisions that students learned the most valuable lessons, and began to realize how a community of anonymous editors can drastically affect the end result, and how biases influence others.
Despite Wikipedia being the world's sixth largest website containing data, students in Dove's class were able to grasp the concept that the content is dynamic, susceptible to bias, and though peer-reviewed, non-authoritative. Upon learning Wikipedia contributors consist predominantly of male, English-speaking editors, students discovered the impact gender, cultural, and language biases can have on a community. Sometimes seeing the problems can actually help, especially when students begin to see why faculty have a general hesitancy toward Wikipedia as a primary source in academia.
Dove stresses the significance of conducting this project in a course where students can find new content that might not be mainstream. Latin American history doesn't have near the presence on Wikipedia as topics students might find for a United States history course.
He also emphasizes why he chose to incorporate this project into a larger research project, stating that "Wikipedia itself is not very deep, but to effectively accomplish this project, students needed to learn deeper skills. In order to learn these skills, students need to know how to do research."
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