Students Find That Wikipedians Are Tougher Graders Than Their Professor

Seattle — Anyone can add to Wikipedia, the popular online encylopedia, but whether a submission survives is determined entirely by its global community of users — and apparently those users are tougher graders than college professors.

That’s what a few students found out in a course taught last year by Martha Groom, an associate professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington at Bothell. She required all of the 34 students in the course to write an article for their final class project and submit it to Wikipedia. By the end of the term, all of the papers had met her standards — in fact, she said the papers were generally the best she had ever had, since students worked harder knowing their work would be seen by a wide audience. But one of the papers was rejected almost immediately by Wikipedians, and four others were later removed by the community for not being up to the encyclopedia’s standards. [Editor’s note: Ms. Groom says in a comment below that the articles were removed “because they overlapped other, better researched articles.”]

Ms. Groom predicts that if the papers hadn’t been graded and revised before being posted on Wikipedia, the number of rejected articles would have been much higher — she predicts that 20 percent of the 34 articles would have failed Wikipedia’s test.

Ms. Groom discussed her experience with Wikipedia in the classroom at a session at Educause 2007, the annual education-technology conference, which wraps up here today.

One of the biggest challenges for students was finding a topic that hadn’t already been covered in Wikipedia, Ms. Groom said. One student ended up writing an entry on “Deforestation during the Roman period,” and another wrote an article titled “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” about the non-fiction book with that title.

Even the papers that didn’t get rejected sometimes met criticism by the Wikipedia community. “The biggest downside is that some Wikipedias are rude and would comment rather ruthlessly in the discussions,” said Ms. Groom.

She argues that the process was a strong learning experience. “They have a much deeper understanding of the research process,” she said.

Should colleges be participating in Wikipedia, which many complain is a hotbed for inaccuracy?

“Is there crap on Wikipedia? Sure there is,” said Ms. Groom in an interview. “So let’s be part of making it better.” —Jeffrey R. Young

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