Wiki Education’s Executive Director Frank Schulenburg was featured on listener-supported community radio station, WMNF, along with Laura Runge, a professor of English at the University of South Florida, and her student Elizabeth Ricketts. Laura is an instructor in our Classroom Program, and taught with Wikipedia in her course last fall, Jane Austen Bits to Bytes.
In the interview, Laura explains that her perceptions of Wikipedia today are dramatically different from what they were even just a few years ago.
“Once I realized that the encyclopedia articles are not just written by any random person and they don’t just stand there unregarded, I have become much more of a believer in using Wikipedia, not necessarily for research, but for information to get you started, to give you a base.”
The perception of Wikipedia among academics in general is also changing. Many students who edit Wikipedia as an assignment in their college courses are at first confused, having been told by many teachers that Wikipedia is unreliable.
“The perception of Wikipedia as an unreliable source is still fairly widespread in academia and in K-12. But it’s changing because the process of how the knowledge is made is becoming more well-known,” Laura says.
When students, and by extension instructors, have a hand in making the resource better, they gain critical skills, but also better a resource for millions of others to use.
Elizabeth improved the Sense and Sensibility article as a part of Laura’s course. The article was already fairly developed, so Elizabeth took a nuanced approach to evaluating where it could be improved. She decided to flesh out the character development and character motivations sections, as well as the critical view section. It was a comprehensive writing task; by the end of the term, Elizabeth had added more than 3,000 words to the article.
Elizabeth also identified an unreliable source that had been cited and removed it. She replaced the information with what she had found in peer-reviewed and otherwise reliable sources. It was both a lesson in addressing content gaps and in evaluating the existing information for accuracy.
Laura points out that an important way that students can improve Wikipedia articles in the classroom is by adding reliable, academic sources to articles’ citation sections. “Not only does it do a service for the encyclopedia itself, but it does a service for teaching the students how to evaluate what real information is. And in this day and age, that’s super important.”
It is important that students have skills to identify misinformation, and it’s important that Wikipedia reflect the most reliable knowledge out there.
“Wikipedia has changed the way people are using information,” Frank says. “So many people Google something and Wikipedia entries are almost always amongst the first ten search results. And I think it’s really important that, if that’s what’s happening and people are using Wikipedia, that there is an organization that is dedicated to making sure that the information that people get on Wikipedia is accurate and not misleading.”
Wiki Education is committed to facilitating these opportunities to connect higher education with Wikipedia. When students improve a resource that they use all the time, they understand what makes that information trustworthy or not. They also bring academic sources, often restricted behind paywalls, to a worldwide audience.
Laura’s colleagues were surprised when she first started teaching with Wikipedia. But Laura has since inspired a lot of excitement amongst coworkers through conferencing and presenting. “Most times that I do that, the lightbulb goes off. Faculty realize that this is actually a wonderful teaching tool.”
And not only does teaching with Wikipedia provide a great learning experience for students, but it’s an important way to expand the reach of academic research.
“We are responsible for our subjects,” Laura says of her and her colleagues. “I teach Early Modern Women. And the women editors on Wikipedia are much smaller in number than the male editors. As a result, the subjects that are covered tend not to include things like early modern women. Frankly, people who care about their subjects are pretty convinced when I tell them that we owe it to our subjects to be represented on what is probably one of the top ten visited websites in the world. The number of visitors that are going to read about our subject on Wikipedia so far dwarfs what we get through our scholarship that other academics begin to be compelled.”
Listen to the full interview here: