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Monday, July 11, 2011


Inside Higher Ed has some surprising observations about Wikipedia:
The United States’ foremost custodian of public records had advice for professors whose colleagues still turn up their noses at Wikipedia.

"If all else fails, you can tell them, 'If it’s good enough for the archivist of the United States,' " said David Ferriero, who was appointed to the post in 2009, " 'we should at least take a look at it on campus.' "

Five years ago, many professors had pegged Wikipedia as a pariah. Now, four years into its first coordinated effort to recruit professors and students to its cause, Wikipedia’s overseers believe they have successfully recast the free, publicly edited encyclopedia as an ally of respectable scholarship.

Two dozen universities now have courses where students are working on Wikipedia as part of their formal coursework. Many of those campuses have “Wikipedia ambassadors” tasked with helping professors weave writing and editing Wikipedia entries into the syllabus. Even Ferriero’s office at the National Archives and Records Administration now employs a “Wikipedian in residence” in charge of fostering relationships with galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

Late last week, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the encyclopedia, took another step toward assuming the mantle of an accessory of higher education: it held an academic conference. The first-ever Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit convened professors who had incorporated Wikipedia into their teaching, as well as others who were considering doing so, to talk about pros and cons of assigning students to improve the publicly edited online encyclopedia.

The foundation also made it clear that Wikipedia plans to expand its relationship with academe.

When the foundation started recruiting professors several years ago for its Public Policy Initiative — an effort to improve articles relating to U.S. public policy — it already had its eye set on developing "mechanisms and systems that would enable us to systematically improve the coverage of any topic area," said Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikimedia.

But public scrutiny can be a double-edged sword, some professors noted. And acclimatizing students to the social and technical aspects of working on Wikipedia can be a “time-suck,” and might force professors to jettison parts of the syllabus more directly relevant to mastering course material.

"It is going take time for … students who are less tech-savvy to be able to move on," said Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science and public policy at Western Carolina.

Cooper said he did have to sacrifice parts of his syllabus and devote about two full class periods to teaching students the technical ins and outs of writing and editing in Wikipedia and communicating with other editors. Some students told him they would have liked more than that.

See this post for some additional cautions.