Teaching with Wikipedia in statistics classrooms

Not everybody understands research right from the start. That’s especially true of the lay public’s understanding of research methods. Many may not understand how experiments and surveys are designed, or how to distinguish between good and bad methods.

Wikipedia may seem like an unlikely source for solving that problem. But as the most-accessed educational resource on Earth, it’s a direct path to millions of people seeking to understand the world. Why not make it as comprehensive as it can be?

We think Wikipedia assignments are an ideal place for students to share their understanding of statistics. A student may spend a term identifying arguments about the validity of a certain type of survey. Typically, they’d hand a paper in to a professor, and then everyone would move on. The paper ends up in a folder, at best.

We haven’t done any studies, but we’d say the odds are in favor of that paper ending up in a trash can.

We think that’s a waste. When students contribute their understanding of data and research methods to Wikipedia, knowledge lives on, and the entire world benefits.

Here’s an example from Columbia University’s Computational Statistics Course, led by Dr. Jose Blanchet. A student in that course created the article on exponential tilting from scratch. That process helps price insurance futures, for example, by helping to integrate the occurrence of rare events.

That’s not a glamorous article, but it goes a long way to helping those who want to understand statistics get their head around it. Someone running an analysis may need to know the underlying math. Now it’s at their fingertips.

But Wikipedia has a lot of room for improving how these articles are presenting statistics to the public. In fact, among the articles considered the best on Wikipedia, only two statistics articles are considered the very best, and only 10 are considered “Good.” Certainly, there are a score of statistics articles that could be added to that list with the help of university students.

Another way for students to get involved is in sharing knowledge about survey design and research methods. For example, student editors in Dr. Benjamin Mako Hill’s Designing Internet Research course at the University of Washington think about survey methods. They analyze analysis. Along the way, they collect information from a variety of sources to build an understanding of how to conduct research, and why. That information is added to Wikipedia.

That means Wikipedia gets a summary of reliable information from academic sources: the building block of any Wikipedia article. Students know that they’re contributing to a bigger project. They’re also practicing how to explain research to the general public. They’re developing communication skills that will help their future research to be understood by future readers.

One student in the class wrote a Wikipedia article about online content analysis. It’s a clear outline for other students, for journalists, and for the general public, of the methodologies and challenges of such research. The course also explored the methods and limitations of Web-based experiments.

If you’d like to have a conversation about integrating Wikipedia into your own course, we’d love to hear from you. Send us an email: contact@wikiedu.org.

Photo: Miastootwarte by Sebastian SikoraCC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.


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