The other day I was recalling a required course at Caltech, a science communication writing class that is meant to help students learn how to communicate technical ideas. I remember writing for this class (although I can’t remember what I wrote about!) and in retrospect I’m saddened to think about how many hours I spent in college writing papers that nobody ever read again. There is a large pool of wasted efforts going into writing papers for college coursework.
It occurred to me that it would be wonderful if this sort of course actually had students choose Wikipedia pages that need attention and completely rewrite them. Writing a scientific/technical wikipedia topic addresses many of the same writing skills that science/engineering students need to learn: the article needs to be accessible as possible while remaining technically
accurate, it needs to cover a lot of different pieces of information
while maintaining coherence as a whole, and it needs to be well referenced (and, by implication (one hopes), well researched).
It has been pointed out to me that I’m not the first with this idea and that it has been done — and while they did run into some difficulties it also showed that writing with purpose motivated students to put more effort into their work. I think many of potential pitfalls could be addressed with appropriate foresight. Some concerns are:
- students feeling pressure writing under the spotlight of the public eye
- teachers feeling stressed at having to evaluate whether work is good for Wikipedia rather than focus on helping the student learn to write
- social friction with Wikipedia as students make mistakes in wiki formatting and are unfamiliar with standard protocol
Here is my proposal that I think would address many concerns:
Set up a private mediawiki for the class (or whole school?) into which
all papers are written. Students can see each other’s papers should
they choose, but I don’t see that as a problem. Classes require
students to show their work to other students all the time, and in
this case it’s only if they choose to look and they don’t have to
evaluate each other (unless maybe you want that to be part of the
class). Papers are written into this wiki and instructors read them
there. You could even have a week or two “free for all” editing period near the end where students can improve each other’s articles.
At the end of the course, students can give consent for their work to go onto Wikipedia. It’s optional, but they don’t have to make the decision until after they’re done.
Assign someone a TA position as Wikipedia liason for the group – not a
writing expert, instead someone familiar with Wikipedia, like me. (After an iteration or two of this, prior students are likely to be interested in taking this TA position. If that doesn’t happen perhaps the course isn’t worth continuing.) This person has the following tasks:
- evaluate the students’ initial choices for topics to write on – check that the target article is poor quality and deserves some
- once these are chosen, give notice on the Wikipedia talk pages the possibility of a page rewrite in the next few months.
- At the end of the course, for those students who give consent to pushing the work to Wikipedia, evaluate whether their versions are an improvement on the article. If there are sections of the article that were lost and should have be preserved, communicate with the students
to integrate those into their work. If there are wiki style problems they can tell the students what to correct. Give notice on these pages about imminent rewrite. If there are wiki style problems they can tell the students what to correct.
- The liason can also communicate with relevant Wikiprojects if they doubt their own qualifications for determining the factual accuracy of the rewrite.
- Update the pages with the rewrites.
This can be a custom Wikipedia account eg. “MIT Wikipedia Liason”.
This way instructors can focus on improving the writing and not worry
about evaluating whether it’s good enough to integrate. Students won’t
be pressured to make their work public, it only happens if they decide
to do so. The liason makes sure the transition of material into
Wikipedia goes smoothly.
Writing a wikipedia article could be an option within a course rather
than a requirement (ie. an alternative to standard dead tree paper
writing) and this set-up could accommodate multiple instructors and
courses should multiple people be interested in offering this style of
writing as an option.