Should College Professors Assign Papers to Improve Content on Wikipedia? (The Ethics Sage)

(Today is a guest post from my friend and colleague Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage.)

Should College Professors Assign Papers to Improve Content on Wikipedia?

Should college professors assign Wikipedia content reviews and edits for course credit? It is an important question because traditionally most college freshmen are told that they shouldn’t use Wikipedia. It’s an unacceptable source for term papers and to assign students a project to check the accuracy and reliability of information on such a site makes me wonder whether professors in their ivory towers have lost perspective on what the purpose of writing is.

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage

In a recent example, students at Emerson College are responsible for Wikipedia’s “theatre and disability” page. The encyclopedia article on minor depressive disorder was revamped by a student at North Dakota State University. And if you ever look up the Wikipedia page on vaccination policy most of what you’re reading comes from a sophomore-level chemistry class at the University of Michigan.

It has been reported that more than 14,000 students have created or edited 35,000 Wikipedia articles as part of a program run by the Wikipedia Education Foundation. The three-year-old nonprofit, a spin-off of the Wikimedia Foundation funded in part by the Stanton Foundation and Google, is determined to convince professors and students that — counter to everything they have ever been told — Wikipedia actually belongs in schools.

In a L.A. Times article on June 20, 2016, Susan Alberts, a biology professor at Duke University who has used Wikipedia in her classroom for the last five years is quoted as saying: “It’s so much better than a term paper, from a student’s perspective. This way, when students write something, someone besides their teacher actually reads it.”

This sounds like a rationalization for a questionable act from my point of view. To say someone else reads it and mean the Wikipedia people makes me wonder what these universities get in return. Is there a financial relationship between those universities that assign Wikipedia projects and the Wikipedia Foundation?

Wiki Ed has developed a program that makes it easier for new classrooms to join up and for hundreds of classes to participate at once. The organization takes care of training students on Wikipedia’s expectations and interface. After that, it works with professors to oversee students as they draft, edit and submit articles, often over several weeks.

I dislike having someone from the organization that is the beneficiary of the writings review those writings as part of the editing process. I believe objectivity may be lost – in appearance if not factually. It’s like having an academic journal work with professors as they write research papers and later decide whether to accept them for publication.

The Wiki Ed website says their Wiki Ed program creates a world where any learner can contribute to open scholarship and education for all and that writing for Wikipedia challenges students into analyzing and interpreting information for fairness, accuracy, and reliability.

I doubt the claim that scholarship improves mainly because, as a professor, I don’t see updating Wikipedia information for accuracy and completeness as a scholarly activity. There is no meaningful analytical dimension to such assignments. Divergent ideas on a subject matter are not analyzed for their relationships. Persuasive arguments are not made. This is the essence of creative writing. By its very definition it is not a creative exercise because the thoughts come initially from content on Wikipedia, not from the minds of the students.

Creative writing should help to stimulate “mental motivation” in which students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting. What is the goal of Wikipedia assignments? It’s a stretch to say it stimulates the minds of students as they go through the process of researching content they did not first identify. Instead, this is content already there. What meaning does it have for students? Perhaps they feel good about improving content on a major site that college students routinely use in their writings. If so, this is not enough to qualify for a rigorous writing assignment.

Other concerns that I have from an academic perspective are Wikipedia assignments should not replace traditional assignments where writing ability is a critical component of the grading process. In the end, Wikipedia assignments are geared toward adding or enhancing encyclopedic content. Contributions to Wikipedia do not contain original research.

To be fair, I suppose one valid way to use Wikipedia assignments could be to assign an independent research project that requires tight writing, neutral tone and relevant citations and then have students present their research in class. Students would write analytical papers and take that content and use it to update Wikipedia. Professors can then grade the paper and include a comparison with the updates to Wikipedia.

Writing at the college level is a process of writing, editing, revising, editing, re-writing, and so on. Writing pieces for Wikipedia fails to meet these standards although I concede that imaginative professors may be able to structure such an assignment in a useful way.

By Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage. Dr. Mintz is Emeritus Professor from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at http://www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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