WSU Class Tests Wikipedia as Academic Tool

OGDEN, Utah – Wikipedia is helping one Weber State University criminal justice professor teach collaborative writing, editing and web etiquette while also getting online- publication experience for her class members.

Students in Criminal Justice 2300, Policing: History, Theory and Practice are participants in the Wiki Education Foundation Classroom Program that launched fall 2013. The foundation goal is to get university students in the United States and Canada to contribute high-quality articles to fill content gaps in a variety of Wikipedia subjects from “African Archaeology” to “Women, Art and Culture.” Last semester, 2,400 students, in 98 courses across the country, contributed content. Already readers have viewed those articles 33 million times.

“Students are using Wikipedia whether we tell them to or not,” explained assistant criminal justice professor Monica Williams. “Instead of instructing students not to use Wikipedia, let’s teach them how to use it responsibly and even how to contribute. They are in college; they are educated citizens, having them add to the world’s body of knowledge sounds great to me.”

Wikipedia is an online community of volunteer editors and writers who check and change each other’s work. Students who post their academic writing must be prepared for editors to make suggestions, edit and even remove posts that they find inaccurate, lacking sources or are biased.

Generally students in courses in Weber State’s College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, where criminal justice is housed, are assigned to make an argument in their course papers and then defend the position.

“Wikipedia editors are always working to make articles neutral,” said Eryk Salvaggio, Wiki Education Foundation communications associate. “Editors remove bias and that’s one of the things students often are challenged by initially because they are told in more traditional assignments to make an argument. The Wikipedia editing and reading communities push for neutrality.”

The advantage is student contributors get feedback from a variety of people. Wikipedia writing is collaborative; communities of writers build articles together. Thinking about writing for the public elevates the students’ energy and enthusiasm.

“Talking to instructors, we found students really are motivated by the idea that their writing is going to be shared,” Salvaggio said. “Students who are writing for an audience and know their work is going somewhere are more likely to take the research and writing seriously and really dive into what they’re learning.”

Successful Wikipedia contributors choose subjects and articles that need improvement, either with additional sources or verifiable information.

Williams said despite the intensity of public scrutiny around law enforcement, approximately 1,400 Wikipedia entries about law enforcement are woefully inadequate, or in Wikipedia terms, “stub-class” articles.

“One example that jumped out at me was the community policing page,” Williams said. “From the ’90s to now, community policing was the major topic of conversation, so I looked at the Wikipedia page and was astounded to find it had literally one sentence.”

Williams’ students worked on a number of stub-class articles, including intelligence-led policing, use of force and racial profiling.

Last semester, junior in sociology Aaron Esquibel and his group researched slave patrols — police officers used before the Civil War to control slaves. Esquibel said his team drew their information from books and scholarly articles. Once they posted the submission online, as many as 12 Wikipedia editors provided review and insight. Editors helped with grammar and style, but Esquibel was surprised by the most valuable lesson he learned.

“The biggest tool I took away was to look at life in general from a neutral point of view,” Esquibel said. “It’s so much better to experience life when you can take a step back from the judgmental point of view and look at things the way they are instead of the way you might have had an opinion about them.”

According to Wiki Ed, 85 percent of teachers who participated last semester will continue to incorporate Wikipedia in courses as an academic tool. Williams is one of those professors and said she appreciates innovative approaches that inspire and improve her students’ writing and critical thinking.

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Monica Williams, assistant professor criminal justice
Eryk Salvaggio, communications associate Wiki Education Foundation    
Allison Barlow Hess, Director of Public Relations
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