How much do students value Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a paradigm of the Internet open culture. Started in 2001, its English edition only has, according to its own statistics page, 5.5 million articles, and is growing at a rate of about 600 per day, with 10 edits per second.

In the early days of internet, ‘finding information’ was a relevant task. Nowadays, we google or ask Siri and we get everything we need in a matter of seconds. Of course, what exactly we get and why is not neutral, but this is a matter for another post. What is important here is that we find the information with no effort, and of course Wikipedia is among the pages people visit more often to enquire about all sorts of topics.

It’s probably save to say that everybody uses Wikipedia. And without a doubt, students are amongst the bigger community of these users, although not always for the right reasons. Students find in Wikipedia an invaluable resource of information to read about known and unknown topics toward their academic work and, sometimes, of text to plagiarize. But do they really value it as a cultural artefact? Do they know how much work people have put in it? And do they know they can actually contribute to it with their own knowledge? And how about the university as a whole? Is the perception of Wikipedia fair to its value? Is there a benefit to pushing our institutions to contribute to it?



Image by Samantha Weald

These questions were among those driving a study we did on the use of Wikipedia as assessed work at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), in Barcelona (Catalonia) and the University of Nis (Serbia), the year before I moved to Royal Holloway. First, wanted to experiment in using the writing of Wikipedia articles as course work, and second we wanted to see how this exercise affected the students’ perception of Wikipedia’s value and reliability.

The first result of this was the creation of new Wikipedia articles. In the case of UPF students created 23 new articles in Catalan and 3 in Spanish, which happen to cover the student own interests within the course and, thus, became immediately a useful resource for future students on their own degree. The Wikipedia project page (in Catalan) contains an overview of the project and the links to the resulting articles.

The second result are two journal articles published in December 2017 and January 2018. The first, which will appear on the journal Anàlisi: Wikipedia access and contribution: Language choice in multilingual communities. A case study, coauthored with Pere Freixa (UPF). It is an account of the UPF case, with a focus and language use, which is particularly interesting due to the linguistic context that affords most students to access to at least three different language editions of Wikipedia. It is important to note here that, despite being a relatively small language, the Catalan version of Wikipedia was the first one to appear after English, and that it is now the 18th language edition in number of articles.

The second journal paper is Wikipedia in higher education: Changes in perceived value through content contribution, coauthored with Dragana Pavlovic (UNis) and Pere Freixa (UPF). This was in fact the main outcome of the project, and was published in Comunicar, a highly ranked communication journal, and discusses the implications of the editing exercise on the perceptions of the students regarding Wikipedia’s value.

The study used two questionnaires, which the students filled before and after editing their articles. The resulting data was analyzed to test for statistically significant changes. Indeed, as our initial hypothesis suggested, creating the articles impacted positively on how students perceive Wikipedia in terms of  usefulness, reliability and trustworthiness. That is, the first 5 questions showed significant differences between the pre and post experience answers, while the last two did not.

• Editing Wikipedia articles is an interesting task.
• Editing Wikipedia articles is a challenging task.
• Wikipedia is a reliable source [for use] in the University context.
• Wikipedia is a useful source of information.
• It is possible to find false information on Wikipedia.
• Do you think that the consideration of Wikipedia is correct in the context of University studies?
• Do you think that the consideration of Wikipedia is correct in general?

With the open questions, we could gather some relevant information on how the students changed their views of Wikipedia after the experience.

With mainly positive comments…

• “Now I know that it is not possible to make anything up. Every word is checked, and so is each article several times”.
• “I started to value the information found on Wikipedia more than I used to before I edited it”.
• “I’ve seen it’s more reliable than they say”.
• “Now I am sure that the information found in Wikipedia is reliable because there are a lot of volunteers that correct what you write, being very strict in referencing information”.
• “I realized how rigorous the supervision is”.
• “I think I was underestimating Wikipedia”.

… and some more critical ones.

• “I realized that anyone could edit a Wikipedia article and I learned how easy it is to add new information that can be referenced but not necessarily true”.
• “Now I’m aware that behind an article there is the person who wrote it, with his/her own opinion, which influences the information”.

Overall, the experience was very positive both for students and teachers. One one side, it was challenging to open up a classroom exercise to uncharted territory, so to speak, with anonymous volunteers monitoring the student work in their own terms. On the other, this openness was precisely what was most valued by students. The fact of having their written work go almost immediately to the public domain was a very positive motivation. Additionally, the exercise contribute in broadening the coverage of Wikipedia (in this case mainly the Catalan edition) of the topics that were relevant for students and, consequently, to future cohorts of their very same course.

Post author: Joan Soler-Adillon


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