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Wikipedia goes to university

U of T first Canadian university involved in foundation’s classroom initiative

U of T classes are contributing to Wikipedia's content. (Graphic by Kelly Rankin)

Wikipedia has come a long way from the days when professors would warn students against using it as a reference or citable source. Today, some professors tell their students the populist encyclopedia is a good a place to start their research.

“My line for some time on this has always been it’s a good place to start, but not to end,” said Professor Andrew Clement at the Faculty of Information.

The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) wants to improve site content by developing relationships with faculty and students in order to increase the number of academic articles in Wikipedia and to improve the quality of those that already exist.

During the 2010-11 academic year WMF ran a pilot project, the Public Policy Initiative, with universities across the United States. The project, funded by the Stanton Foundation, was intended to increase people’s awareness of public policy-related issues by improving the quality of public policy entries in Wikipedia.

This year they expanded the pilot to include universities around the world with the University of Toronto as its first Canadian participant. The program’s goal is to increase the number of contributors and expand the use of Wikipedia as a teaching tool. 

“The University of Toronto seemed like the ideal place to begin the Canadian initiative,” said Jonathan Obar, a professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University and Wikipedia’s education co-ordinator for Canada. “It was clear at the start that UofT has an interest in the exploration of new forms of innovative e-pedagogy.”

Currently, there are five courses at U of T registered in the program, each using the online encyclopedia in different ways.

UTSC undergraduates take part

One such professor is Steve Joordens, who teaches psychology at U of T Scarborough. His first year undergraduate course, Introduction to Psychology is participating in the program. Due to the number of students enrolled in the course, approximately 1,700, Joordens’ designated the Wikipedia assignment as optional, giving his students a chance to earn extra marks if they decide to participate.

A big believer in online teaching, Joordens welcomed the opportunity to use Wikipedia as a pedagogical tool and said his participation in the program was a “convergence of positives.” The provost’s office had issued a challenge to various programs to come up with something new and innovative for first year courses. Simultaneously, the Association of Psychological Sciences had issued a challenge to its members to help improve the quality of psychological content, and the WMF’s education program seemed the perfect way to accomplish both.

Joordens said about 1,100 students signed up for the first task, to create a user account on Wikipedia. Overall the assignment is intended to introduce students to Wikipedia as contributors rather than the more common role of consumers of content.

“The professors that we’re working with strive to provide students with a unique and relevant classroom experience, and see the value in exposing students to a growing wiki-culture, while at the same time teaching them course content,” said Obar.

Joordens believes working with Wikipedia helps his students to think critically and introduces them to community based work.

Faculty of Information class pitches in

 “It’s good for students because they can participate in the community of psychologists,” he added.
Clement and Siobhan Stevenson, co-instructors of the Faculty of Information’s course Knowledge and Information in Society, are also participating in the project. Both agree it is an excellent pedagogical tool because it makes a great case study for information students.

“I think it’s an interesting enough phenomenon that anyone doing a degree in information should have some exposure to it,” said Clement.

For their course, Clement and Stevenson have asked students to choose a course-related Wikipedia article, for example, the sociology of knowledge or the political economy of information, make a contribution to the article and then write a critical paper reflecting on their experience.

Melissa Bruno, a student in the masters of information program, echoes Clement’s earlier comment, “Wikipedia is a good place to start, but as information students we should be more critical of [Wikipedia].”

Using Wikipedia as a case study also provides students the opportunity to reflect on themes central to information studies, in particular, how information and information processes shape and are shaped by society.

“As an internet encyclopedia it’s an ideal case study for everything related to knowledge creation and knowledge management,” said Stevenson. “You couldn’t pick a better case study for information science students who are in their first course.”