Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities class blazes online trail

Rice News staff

Since 2007, students in Diana Strassmann’s Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities (PJHC) classes have worked in an area that may seem unusual for academia: They’ve learned to write – and edit – articles for the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The innovative assignment for several PJHC courses has led to students producing objective, carefully sourced articles on subjects ranging from child poverty to microcredit for what Strassmann calls “increasingly the first resource many Internet users consult whenever they encounter an unfamiliar topic.”

This year the groundbreaking project has earned rare recognition, as Strassmann and her students are among the earliest participants in the Wikipedia Education Program, an ambitious initiative that seeks to bring Wikipedia into higher-education classrooms around the world.

Strassmann is one of a small but growing number of faculty participating in the program along with other professors at schools such as the University of Michigan and Georgetown.

The idea behind the program and Wikipedia itself, Strassmann said, is to “make knowledge available to people around the world for free.” But while the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, creator of the program, seeks to incorporate writing for Wikipedia into the college curriculum, overreliance on the online encyclopedia as it now exists can be problematic, Strassmann said. While it can “democratize the availability and production of knowledge,” it also risks spreading and reinforcing “inaccurate, and even malicious, information.”

Because Wikipedia entries are submitted by the general population, there are “issues of systemic bias,” Strassmann said, particularly in entries on the very topics that PJHC students discuss in class, such as women in governance. Comparatively few articles focus on gender, race, ethnicity or structural inequalities.

The Wikipedia assignments Strassmann has designed for PJHC core courses aim to address such issues. Students are asked to browse Wikipedia extensively to find a topic relating to the course that interests them and that may benefit from a revision or expansion. They are told to carefully follow “Contributing to Wikipedia: Overall Guidelines and Evaluation Criteria,” a document created by Strassmann that provides criteria for amending the site’s content. In it, they are introduced to the “Five Pillars of Wikipedia,” one of which stipulates that prospective editors “interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner. When discussing articles with fellow Wikipedians, avoid personal attacks, avoid edit wars and assume good faith on the part of others.”

The students’ assignment is to “propose and then carry out either a substantial revision of an existing Wikipedia entry by rewriting it and creating additional sections, expand a ‘stub‘ for a topic that is not sufficiently covered on the site or create an entirely new entry.” This spring, students have chosen topics from food security and gender to child trafficking.

Four Rice students are currently serving as Wikipedia campus ambassadors, ready to assist fellow Rice students in editing for Wikipedia. Jones College seniors Sherry Lin and Lee Johnson were trained online last summer, and most recently, the Wikimedia Foundation flew Martel College senior Margaret Andersen and Baker College sophomore Ana Builes to Indianapolis for an all-expense paid weekend training workshop.

Johnson said, “The Wikipedia training has made me pay close attention to my own writing for Rice coursework. Is it accurate? Am I relying on the best sources available?”

For all PJHC students, the satisfaction of editing a Wikipedia article resembles that of a new author. “We really like the idea that you can go to Wikipedia and find an article you contributed to,” Lin said. “I definitely feel a sense of pride in my work on Wikipedia. There is a feeling of accomplishment that is different than writing a paper, because the article is open for everyone to see. I personally check my article (on ‘climate change and poverty’) daily to see what changes have been made and how it has grown.”

One of the main considerations in writing successfully for Wikipedia is attribution. Like a standard academic paper, the online encyclopedia requires extensive citations – often, for virtually every sentence. The process reinforces the importance of careful, neutral research.

“Writing for Wikipedia helped me learn to construct and write about points of view in an unbiased manner,” Andersen said. “This, in turn, has improved my writing for other classes and job applications.”

For Strassmann, Wikipedia has been a unique and successful teaching tool that others are starting to notice. She was among 120 educators invited to the inaugural Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit, held last summer in Boston and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation.

“Educators and students alike recognize the power of editing and writing as a community,” Strassmann said. “By writing for Wikipedia, PJHC students are participating in a global community and helping to ensure that complex ideas and research are accessible to a broad, general audience. Beyond bridging gaps in research and accessibility, this assignment has inspired students to see themselves as educators. I’m proud to say that Rice is part of this new venture.”

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