Since its inception nearly a decade ago, Wikipedia has been a secret tool for students at nearly every level of education.
Self-described as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” the website has evolved into one of the most commonly used and least accurate sources in works-cited pages everywhere – a label that several GW professors are now working to change.
This past spring, the Wikimedia Foundation – a nonprofit organization that oversees Wikipedia – contacted several U.S. universities, including GW, with an idea to improve reliability on Wikipedia: college student contributors.
On a grant from the Stanton Foundation, Wikimedia began recruiting public policy professors willing to integrate Wikipedia-related assignments into their courses. Four professors from GW opted in, as well as professors from Georgetown, Syracuse University, Indiana University at Bloomington and Harvard University.
Dr. Joseph Cordes, associate director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, said he immediately knew the project could complement policy analysis studies at GW – a discipline in which he said critical analysis of sources is key.
This summer, Cordes helped bring a team of Wikimedia experts to the GW campus for a three-day training session to teach several dozen professors and “student ambassadors” exactly how to modify content on Wikipedia.
The training focused specifically on content related to public policy issues, but Cordes said he believes “pretty much every field can use Wikipedia as a classroom tool.”
Cordes explained that while the credibility of Wikipedia is disputed at universities, and some professors at GW actually prohibit the site as a source, Trachtenberg school administrators “believe it has potential.”
“There is a perception that the information is not controlled,” said Cordes, adding that he has “always been impressed with the quality” of the articles.
He added that Wikipedia should be used among other “traditional” academic resources.
Dr. Donna Infeld, director of the Master of Public Policy program at the Trachtenberg school, was the first professor at GW to have a Wikipedia-based assignment.
She said she had “no clue if students would want to participate” when she introduced the extra-credit work in a graduate course on public policy this summer. About half of her class opted to participate.
“Students knew that their content might be criticized, and it was exciting for them,” Infeld said. “They gained confidence because they had something to contribute to Wikipedia’s marketplace of ideas.”
One of her students, Andy Harris, chose to look at articles related to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, an issue he had been studying in depth for more than a month. In late summer, he contributed a Wikipedia paragraph on gays in the military under the Obama administration.
Other users changed Harris’ section within 48 hours, but because he considered himself “somewhat of an expert,” he defended his original content under the discussion section of the site. Ultimately, his content was kept on the site.
“This piecemeal editing is difficult because no one is the real gatekeeper. There will always be a battle,” said Harris, a public policy major. “[Wikipedia] brings together the best of the Internet. Its product is greater than the sum of its users’ knowledge.”
When first hearing about the Wikimedia project this fall, Pat Campbell, a first-year graduate student in the Trachtenberg school, said that if given the opportunity, he would “absolutely” participate.
“I use Wikipedia all the time,” Campbell said. “It’d be incredible to have an impact on a body of knowledge.”