Your homework today: improve Wikipedia

by Cristián Opazo

What would happen if you would attempt to address two of the most controversial issues in higher education today, namely, the use of Wikipedia and the peer-review paradigm– both at once in your classroom? This is precisely what one brave member of the Vassar faculty, Chris Smart, Associate Professor of Chemistry, did with his students in a senior-level course, during the spring semester of 2010.

“Since we know that our students use Wikipedia for academic purposes on a regular basis, as a teacher, you can’t just deny it, prohibit it, or look away,” says Smart. “So I asked myself: what could I do to motivate my students to use Wikipedia in a more constructive way? And the answer is more than obvious: we need to make them active contributors, instead of passive consumers. The problem with Wikipedia in higher education is not Wikipedia itself: it is the use that students make of it. When students use it passively, treating everything they find as truth, especially on topics they have little or no knowledge about, then we all have a problem. But if you make them confront what they read with a critical eye, and take it upon themselves to improve the existing (and non-existing) content, then you have radically turned the situation in everybody’s favor.”

Smart, who was teaching the 300-level course “Chemical Reactions” in the spring of 2010, designed the following assignment: each student would pick one of the many existing Wikipedia articles on chemical reactions tagged as a stub (that is, a very short, poorly written article), and improve it with quality content such as text, chemical diagrams and bibliographic references. “I quickly realized that I needed the help of an experienced Wikipedia user to learn whether this was a feasible idea, so I approached Cristián Opazo from Academic Computing Services, and he was very excited about the idea from the very start. He conducted several hands-on sessions about editing Wikipedia in my classroom, and the students started getting busy right away.”

I could see that perhaps the single most important factor that would motivate my students into doing a good job in this assignment, would be the fact that the whole world was watching,” adds Smart. “The academic world tends to quickly dismiss Wikipedia on the basis of its openness and its lack of formal peer-review by experts, but the way I see it is that this openness is precisely what makes it a great resource: you have this huge community of contributors all over the world that care about particular topics, and many of them are committed enough to criticize existing content, and to go to great lengths to make a certain article accurate and cohesive. In fact, at least one of my students engaged in a very constructive exchange with another Wikipedia contributor somewhere out there, and this exchange was prompted by this student’s work as a Wikipedia editor for this class assignment. He still keeps an eye on the evolution of the article long after the class is over, because he feels proud of his work: now there is this article about a particular chemical reaction that is available for the whole world to read and reference.”

One of the most often-heard criticisms about Wikipedia is “how good can be something that has been created by an unregulated bunch of anonymous people?” What I tell them is: have you heard of Linux? The most robust, efficient and reliable computer operating system in the history of the world, used in the highest levels of scientific research and business enterprise, was created, and is progressively improved, by an unregulated bunch of individuals around the world. The core ideas that fuel the open-access paradigm are not profitability or market appeal; they are creativity and commitment. And that’s the spirit behind Wikipedia.

To learn more about the use of Wikipedia in teaching and research, listen to this interview with Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia at the Chronicle of Higher Education site. This excellent article by Patricia Cohen at the New York Times about re-thinking the peer-review paradigm in academia recently generated a lot of interest.


The Teaching and Technology Forum

by Steve Taylor

Though it’s not a recent event, I thought it would still be worthwhile to write about last spring’s Teaching and Technology Forum.

In its eighth year, the forum is a poster session in which faculty members display and explain teaching initiatives (or in some cases, research initiatives) that make interesting use of technology. A new feature this year was the inclusion of some student-initiated projects as well.

Keynote Speaker
A special feature of the forum is its keynote speaker. This year’s keynote was Prof. Paul Ruud, of the Economics Department. In his address, he proposed a new blog, in which Vassar  faculty members would regularly post brief descriptions of their class activities. With a high participation rate, this blog would let any instructor know what his or her students were doing in their other classes; then the instructor might adapt some lesson plans to complement what students were doing in some of those other classes. It might also encourage faculty members to communicate more with each other, based on a greater awareness of what each other was teaching. The result could be a strengthening of the cross-discipline integration that is the core of a liberal arts education.

The poster sessions, while quite diverse, covered topics that might each be considered to be one of two types: those that used technology to visualize information and those that use technology to increase social networking.

Visualization Technologies
Some poster sessions show ways in which technology could be used to give students greater access to images of what they’re learning about. Lucy Johnson, with Anne Sando (2010), showed how they are building a database of photos of the archaeological artifacts; Arden Kirkland and Holy Hummel showed how they are building a database of photos of the costume collection; Andrew Tallon showed his growing collection of digital 3D panoramas of architectural sites; and Sarah Kozloff showed how she is using streaming technology to provide students with anytime/anywhere access to film excerpts. Jane Parker showed a novel use of video for skills training: projecting video of a skilled squash player onto the front wall of a squash court, for players to mirror in real time.

Visualization is also used for getting a new perspective on scientific data. Alicia Sampson (2012) and Rebecca Eells (2012) worked with Kate Susman and Jenny Magnes to build visual models of worm behavior; Joe Tanski and Bona Ko (2010) used x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the elements of art objects.

Social Networking
While these projects used technology to bring  students closer to their learning materials, others used technology to bring students closer to other people. Kelsey Forrest (2011) and others in Saúl Mercado’s class created a social networking site to benefit the Vassar community, while Leslie Williams and Adalake Barnwell created  a site to facilitate communication between local high schools students and the Vassar student mentors. Students in the Bioinformatics program created their own support group for fellow students. Some people used technology to  collaborate on their work: students in Leonard Nevarez’ class used a wiki for collaborative writing, while Tracey Holland used a wiki  to co-write with her own collaborators; Natalie Friedman’s class did their writing assignments on a shared blog site. Zeynep Gokcen Kaya, an exchange student from Turkey, presented her research on social interaction in virtual worlds.

Interestingly, two exhibits showed uses of technology that enhanced both visualization and social interaction: students in Jeremy Davis’ class used Skype to interview authors whose articles they were studying, while students in Hiromi Dollase’s class used videoconferencing to speak with students in Japan.

More information, along with photos and reproductions of each presenter’s poster can be found at <>.Watch for the announcement of next spring’s event— you won’t want to miss it.