A decade ago, Amin Azzam, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, often told his medical students not to look up health information on Wikipedia for the sake of the site’s reliability. website. But a student once looked at him “like he was crazy,” which made him rethink that position.
“Listen, we’re all going there first as students,” the student told Azzam. “Why are you fighting us? Why don’t you help us improve it? »
Azzam considered the wisdom in the student’s comment: Free encyclopedia entries are written in a way that students understand. They also offer an accessible first passage on new topics or a review of forgotten topics. Also, he decided, many patients rely on Wikipedia to research medical issues, and doctors who ignore this reality are mistaken. He decided to design and teach an elective course in medical school on Wikipedia editing.
“At the time, it was far too far-fetched an idea to require all medical students to edit Wikipedia,” Azzam said. The UCSF School of Medicine has since incorporated a Wikipedia editing task into a required foundation course for all medical students. The assignment is part of the curriculum designed to foster students’ identity as physicians who embody a “habit of inquiring of the mind”, which is defined as a “practice to which it is difficult to give up”. Students who enjoy the assignment are encouraged to enroll in the elective which focuses entirely on Wikipedia editing.
Azzam is part of a growing trend of teachers integrating Wikipedia editing assignments into their courses. In the process, these instructors make old arguments against the participatory website, improving their students’ digital literacy skills and expanding their roles as educators from the classroom to society. But curricular efforts to increase students’ ease with Wikipedia aside, some still discourage students from citing it as a research source.
When someone searches for a topic online, the topic’s Wikipedia entry is often returned at the top of the results. The crowdsourcing platform is well known for its depth and breadth, but also for its flaws, including geographic, historical, gender, racial, sexual identity, and cultural representation inequality.
According to Diana Park, science librarian at Oregon State University, professors who make room for Wikipedia in their classrooms seize opportunities to engage in conversations with students about how knowledge is constructed and shared. Her research, conducted with Laurie Bridges, instructional and outreach librarian and associate professor at Oregon State, is informed by their experiences teaching a two-credit course at the university that helps students to think about information equity through a Wikipedia lens.
“The whole course is about Wikipedia, but we also use Wikipedia as a broader placeholder for general internet information,” Park said.
In a Wikipedia editing course, students hone their research and digital literacy skills while writing and editing articles on the platform. Instructors use their subject matter knowledge to assess the quality of student contributions, while emphasizing values such as knowledge sharing and diversity of perspective. Wiki Education provides faculty members with resources and support for teaching and editing.
Students also learn skills that help them detect the quality of information on the site. WikiProject Medicine, for example, ranks health-related Wikipedia articles by importance (high, high, medium, low) and rates them. These rankings, taken together, stratify website health-related content by importance and quality, Azzam said. Students also discover the “talk page” of an article, where others discuss its merits.
Students who edit Wikipedia articles as part of their coursework often find it “much more meaningful than writing an article that only their professor sees,” Park said.
Students testify to their impact from a course dashboard that records scores, much like a team dashboard would. For example, in Azzam’s most recent course, which ran from late August to September this year, the 165 students added approximately 1,440 edits, 100,000 words, and 886 references to Wikipedia articles that since been viewed 1.16 million times.
“For some students, it’s the greatest thing they’ve done in their careers,” Azzam said, noting that his students have inspired him. “The global impact on public health can be profound.”
When Wikipedia editing courses at institutions around the world and in all subject areas are considered together, the numbers are remarkable. As of this writing, for example, 6,040 students enrolled in 360 Wikipedia editing courses in fall 2022 had added 1,430,000 words, provided 14,900 references, edited 3,140 articles, and written 136 new articles. , which together received 89 million page views.
“There’s a lot of wisdom in the phrase ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,'” Azzam said.
To be sure, the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, is aware of how students should use – and, more importantly, not use – Wikipedia.
“I don’t think people should quote it, and I don’t think people should quote Britannica either,” Wales said in 2005. For a Deeper Level.
Many instructors agree, including some who responded to a query on Twitter, who wrote, “quoting it in articles (and therefore having to quote it) is… not pretty” and “Good place to start. Bad place to end. Follow the quotes.”
Instructors who wish to incorporate Wikipedia editing assignments into their courses may encounter difficulties. For example, professors who are qualified to write academic prose may need to learn how to write prose suitable for the general public, Park said.
Simson Garfinkel, a professional lecturer in data science at George Washington University, incorporated Wikipedia editing into a course he taught. But some of his students were baffled by the open-ended assignment to make a meaningful contribution to Wikipedia.
“For many topics, the reason Wikipedia articles are short or non-existent is that there aren’t many secondary sources that are authoritative, citable, and meet Wikipedia’s citation standards,” Garfinkel wrote. “Students wanted quantifiable measurements – how many words do we need to add to get an A?”
Despite the challenges, Garfinkel is an enthusiastic supporter of teaching with Wikipedia, especially for science, technology, engineering, and math students who benefit from learning science communication skills.
Park encourages students to edit articles that match their interests, but present challenges for students whose interests are considered non-notable by Wikipedia standards. Park recalls a student who wanted to write about lemon bars and other recipes traditionally considered women’s activities. The student noted that someone else had tried unsuccessfully to create such an article. They worked together to strengthen the case for the article and were successful in getting the article accepted. Still, the process can frustrate a student and there is no guarantee of success.
Asking students to write a new article is more work than asking them to edit an existing page. But before students write or edit, they need instructions on what information to include and how to find that information. Instructors help students by offering advice on research methods, the type of information to add, and acceptable sources. Instructors familiar with the Wikipedia ecosystem are in a better position to lead a class through the process.
“You think it’s really easy to change or add a few sentences, but there’s a lot of work in those few sentences,” Park said.
Beyond the classroom
Savannah Shumock, a second-year medical student at UC San Francisco, had only ever known professors who had warned her to avoid Wikipedia, until she enrolled in the Azzam course which required him to edit articles on Wikipedia.
“It was pretty eye-opening to see how inaccurate some of the information could be once we looked at it closely,” Shumock said. “One sentence…had defined an arrhythmia as too fast a heartbeat, which is extremely incorrect.” A runner or someone under stress can have a rapid heartbeat without having an arrhythmia, she said. A classmate corrected the entry to say an arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat.
Shumock also discovered an article about childhood blindness without any information on eye screening, so she added it to the article. She is also looking for ways to make articles more inclusive, such as adding information for women who were not designated female at birth in women’s health articles. In the pages on specific medical conditions, she adds insight into how low-income settings can impact disease progression. Such efforts, she said, are important because Wikipedia may be someone’s only source of information.
Editing Wikipedia articles is “something I could see myself doing again,” Shumock said now that the course is over. “I feel responsible for correcting misinformation with appropriate sources.”
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