By John Timmer | Published: October 30, 2007 – 01:17AM CT
Groom, who teaches environment and ecology classes, presented her experience at the 2007 EDUCAUSE conference, which focuses on IT in the education environment. Her initial goal was simply to provide some meaning to the college-level term paper, which typically has an audience of one (the professor) before ending its career in a recycling bin. Groom hoped that assigning students the task of creating a Wikipedia entry would make the effort more meaningful, since students were writing for what might be a wider audience and with the intention of providing a general public benefit. She also suggested that the project would be a good introduction to the academic world, which focuses on the production and dissemination of knowledge.
To that end, she assigned two of her classes the task of generating Wikipedia entries focused on globalization and sustainable development. 34 students in one class and 14 student groups in a second participated; all but one student found it a valuable experience, and many reported that they felt more personally invested in the work. For her part, Groom felt that the quality of the work was superior to the typical in-class assignment.
The Wikipedia community, however, was not as impressed. One article didn’t survive for 24 hours following its introduction, and four additional ones were ultimately deleted following extensive discussion, their contents merged into existing entries. Groom also noted that some of the comments in the ensuing discussions “were delivered rudely.”
There were also some practical issues regarding the use of Wikipedia, primarily related to the process of posting in the appropriate markup format. The students also needed some help learning the language and style appropriate for an encyclopedia-type work. Some of the other issues actually contributed to the pedagogical experience, such as learning to identify credible material, appropriately using copyrighted items, providing appropriate references, and identifying research topics by noting gaps in the existing Wikipedia material. The combination of these issues required significantly more hands-on time by Groom than a typical term paper would.
I’m not sure if this is a general or long-term solution to the fact that producing term papers has become a bit of a numbing ritual for students. Wikipedia is selective about the significance of the material it incorporates, and many areas of study already have detailed material in place, so there’s going to be finite room for contributions. But the fact that Groom has identified features that get students more involved—a broad audience and sense of ownership of their work—might help other professors find ways of getting their own students more motivated.