The collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia often gets a bum rap for being a poor source of information, and many educators discourage – or even ban – their students from using the site. But Wikipedia has been making a concerted effort in recent years to build alliances with academia, aiming not just for a better reputation but soliciting editorial participation from students and teachers alike. Part of that has come in the form of the Wikipedia Education Program, a pilot program where college students contribute to Wikipedia articles as part of their class assignments.
According to a study just released by the Wikimedia Foundation, early results of the initiative seem positive, with U.S. students participating in the program adding more significantly more quality content than regular new users.
These students added 1855 bytes of content that stayed on Wikipedia (that longevity is an important marker as long-time editors can be rather ruthless with challenging newcomers’ contributions). That amount of student-generated/edited content compares with just 491 bytes for a random selection of new users who joined the English-language site around the same time. And about half of the Wikipedia Education Program participants added 1000 or more bytes that has stayed up on Wikipedia for six months, whereas more than half of that random sample of new editors added no content that's remained on the site. Overall, the 920 or so student editors participating in the program added about the same amount of content as 2250 “typical new editors.”
Even with the end of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which had its fair share of errors too, I should add -- errors fixed in Wikipedia), concerns about the quality of Wikipedia content remain one of the most cited-arguments against relying on the site. (See: Stephen Colbert’s and “Wikiality.”) Of course, whether we think it’s reliable or not, Wikipedia is one of the most-frequently visited websites in the world. Even so, the site has been struggling to maintain active volunteer editors, and last summer, the site’s co-founder Jimmy Wales admitted that the encyclopedia was ”scrambling to simplify what he called ‘convoluted’ editing templates that may be discouraging people from writing and editing Wikipedia’s entries.”
Will students’ experiences with Wikipedia through its education initiative help overcome some of this discouragement? Will they remain active volunteer editors once their classes are complete? Again, early signs point to “yes,” but of course the Education Program is still fairly new.
The program has fairly limited reach in the US too, with just 55 colleges currently participating. (Hey professors: get on board with this. It could be a better use of your students’ time than writing essays that no one ever reads, and you can sidestep the whole robot-essay-grader argument that way too!) But it is gaining momentum internationally, and the Wikipedia Education Program has student ambassadors in Brazil, Egypt, Italy, Macedonia, Russia, and Mexico – all working on strengthening other languages’ versions of the collaborative encyclopedia.