A student uses Wikipedia for a classroom assignment.
the Gauntlet

Wikipedia embraced in the classroom

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Wikipedia is unreliable for citing sources in university. Cite Wikipedia in an essay and you won't be earning any bonus points with your professor. But some universities have decided to incorporate Wikipedia into course material.

The Wikimedia Education Program has reached out to university students to check for "legitimacy, clarity and quality."

Professors participating in the program can have students fact-check content or write entirely new articles for the online encyclopedia.

"The program picks up where the traditional essay leaves off. Students are still synthesizing sources and writing research papers, but they are exposed to a wider audience," said Wikipedia's education coordinator for Canada Jonathan Obar. "It adds a new dimension of media literacy development, an exposure to wiki-culture and wiki-philosophy. It's the best tool we have for e-pedagogical development."

Obar said students benefit from the program as well, allowing them to interact with online communities.

"They get instant feedback from their audience. Before, perhaps only a professor and a teaching assistant would read their research paper, but with this sort of platform, now the audience is significantly larger."

Wikimedia's Education Program began in 2010, targeting public policy classes in American universities. From there, the program spread to Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, among others.

Canadian universities soon followed. Mount Royal University professor Andrew Reil allowed his students in his Controversies in Science class to write Wikipedia articles for marks. Senior-level psychology courses at the University of Alberta have also embraced Wikipedia.

The program has expanded around the world. Engineering classes in India are part of the program, as are as students in Brazil, and in the future students from North Africa and the Middle East are expected to participate.

Obar said this platform is applicable to all subjects, but a drawback is it doesn't allow students the opportunity to learn how to write argumentative papers.

"Students need to learn argumentative writing, and since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, neutral writing is all it allows," he said.

Professor of psychology on the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta Paula Marentette said, "It was an ideal opportunity to get students to write for someone else as well as me. It is a different style of writing than most students are used to."

It took some students time to adjust to the program because, according to Marentette, "they weren't writing only for a grade anymore, they were writing for an audience as well."

She said that the site was frustrating in terms of dealing with Wikipedia moderators. Her students mainly edit articles and sometimes Wikipedia did not accept students' articles.

She said the program is still in its baby steps and "there is a lot of room for improvement."

Some U of C students greet the idea enthusiastically.

First-year business student Sophia Shaikh said, "I like this approach to learning more because it gets students thinking. You have to really think about the reliability of where you get your sources, and what makes information solid. Plus there are more people who see it, and that's a really good motivator."

Anissa Alfitisi, a first-year biological sciences student, agreed.

"It's pretty clever because Wikipedia is attempting to reach out to the tech-savvy future generation. I would really like to see it in my own classes."