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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

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Students tell OHIO's story on Wikipedia


Go to Wikipedia for a project. That command usually sounds unfamiliar to college students.

Throughout a student's academic career, they are warned against using Wikipedia as a source for research. The online encyclopedia that allows virtually anyone to create or edit an existing page has earned a negative reputation throughout the world of academia. However, an English class at Ohio University is looking to break the negative stereotype associated with Wikipedia.

Graduate student Matthew Vetter's "ENG 308J: Writing and Rhetoric II" recently completed a project that gave students the opportunity to research topics related to Ohio University. The students would then create or update Wikipedia pages with the confirmed and accurate information that they had discovered.

"I feel like traditional writing assignments are designed for a teacher created environment. Students don't get to engage with real audiences," said Vetter. "When students are just writing for the teacher or the assignment, they are not doing any work that is going to engage them on any real level. I wanted to give them the opportunity to engage with multiple audiences."

Students found their resources at the Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections located in Alden Library. Judith Connick, special collections librarian, Bill Kimok, university archivist and records manager, and Doug McCabe, curator of manuscripts, all helped students locate documents that would be beneficial to the chosen topic.

This project was the "brain child" of Vetter and Sara Harrington, head of art and archives.

Vetter, who has completed the necessary training to become a Wikipedia ambassador, was interested in designing a project where students took their writing assignments out of the classroom and into the "real world."

Meanwhile, Harrington was looking for ways to collaborate with faculty to use the special collections in new an interesting ways. When the two met to discuss their ideas, the Wikipedia project was born.

Everyone involved quickly learned that this project could prove to be a tedious one. After sifting through the enormous collection of archives found at the Mahn Center, students began to work on their Wikipedia pages. Finished articles then go through a series of edits and fact checking done by trained Wikipedia editors. The editors returned the articles to the students with tips and suggestions to format the pieces to the website's guidelines.

"Wikipedia is not only about content, creation and evaluation; it is also about the whole [writing and editing] process," said Harrington. "I think we all learned a lot about the process that Wikipedia goes through to create its pages and verify the information."

Students chose topics ranging from the Athens State Hospital, now called the Ridges, and Charles Ping to George Kahler, a professional baseball player who started his career at OHIO.

"What interested me was that the students really created some wonderful articles. It is exciting for me to see the students not only using these rare and unique collections, but adding to the world of scholarship while doing so," said Harrington.

Vetter added that he felt the class enjoyed the project, and some even showed interest in further developing their articles past the assignment's due date.

This project may have given the students a chance to display their writing skills in a public way, but it also provided them with the opportunity to participate in the media convergence that is prevalent in society.

"We [at the Mahn Center] want people to know that the rare and unique materials held in special archives remain vital in the digital age, and that these unique sources have continued relevance," said Harrington. "A project like this one demonstrates a way in which old scholarship and new media are working together in new important ways."

This project gave students a chance to experience media convergence in a hands-on way. The Mahn Center is home to unique one-of-a-kind materials that many have not had the opportunity to work with. These documents are old, yet valuable sources of information that cannot be found anywhere else.

"When we see information [online] it affects the way that we understand it. Similarly, when we see information that is old, fragile and falling apart, we approach it in a different way," said Vetter. "It really gives students an awareness of materiality of information and how that materiality influences our processing, understanding, and our interpretation of information."

Both Vetter and Harrington agreed that a project of this nature was beneficial to those involved, and would certainly recommend it for others to try.

"They actually got to go out and experience real writing by doing it," said Vetter. "That is, by all means, the best way to learn."