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.