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How can students use Wikipedia in the classroom?

Jacob Zuckerman | Apr 20, 2015
Matthew Vetter discusses his research during the “Graduate Research Series @ Alden” seminar on April 15, 2015. The Ohio University Libraries and Graduate Student Senate host the series to showcase graduate student research methods.
Matthew Vetter discusses his research during the “Graduate Research Series @ Alden” seminar on April 15, 2015. The Ohio University Libraries and Graduate Student Senate host the series to showcase graduate student research methods. Photo credit: Tyler Stabile/Ohio University Libraries.

After Wikipedia launched in 2001, a new edict formed in college classrooms across the country: Wikipedia has no place in the realm of higher learning. This proclamation is repeated on the first day of classes across all academic disciplines, semester after semester. Despite the near universal ban on the free, online encyclopedia, one Ohio University Ph.D. candidate and 2014 Claude Kantner Fellow is not only encouraging the use of Wikipedia, but requiring it of his undergraduate students.

Matthew Vetter started using Wikipedia as it grew to prominence in 2004. While a graduate student in 2011, his professor asked him to come up with a theoretical assignment to engage students in digital writing. Vetter proposed to teach not only writing, but research, composition, rhetoric and editing through Wikipedia.  

“Part of why I’ve found Wikipedia useful for teaching is because it is such a productive writing community,” Vetter says, referring to the collaborative methodology and volunteer emphasis that drives content on the site. “I’ve found that observing it can help students understand some important things about writing.”

Despite the inferior status of Wikipedia in mainstream academia today, Vetter argues that most articles are better researched and more frequently revised than most people would assume. Citing Wikipedia’s entry on “The Simpsons,” Vetter points to the entry’s 267 citations and hundreds of revisions since it was created almost 14 years ago.

Alongside the copious number of references and revisions, there is more data to support the accuracy of Wikipedia. In an oft-cited 2005 investigation led by the Nature International Weekly Journal of Science, Wikipedia is almost as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.

“I think we do students a disservice to ban it [Wikipedia],” Vetter says.

In its original form, Vetter’s class consisted of students creating and editing Wikipedia pages for different subjects. After a few semesters, Vetter realized that his students needed to switch to articles on topics with more of a local and underrepresented focus to make their entries and edits stick (not be removed by other community editors). Such a focus also allows students to help improve the encyclopedia’s coverage of marginalized subjects, he notes.

“I realized that students would be more successful if they worked on articles that are less well developed,” Vetter says. “There will be more gaps in representation there.”

One prime example is the representation of Appalachia on Wikipedia, Vetter says. In a class he taught during the summer 2014, his students found entries on the topic to be lacking. That sends a particular message about Appalachia, Vetter argues.

“You get things that aren’t well represented because they aren’t valued,” he says. “We see encyclopedias as these very neutral things, when in fact they’re always very political and very ideological.”

Angela Reighard is a senior at Ohio University studying journalism who took Vetter’s class in the summer 2014. As a writer herself, Reighard felt that she took more from Vetter’s class than any English class she’s taken so far.

“It was probably the most I got out of an English class, to be honest, because it was such a different format,” Reighard says. “It was a class where you were actually interested going into it because you’re writing on such a common platform … when you’re finally adding content to that page, you feel important.”

Looking forward, Vetter is seeking to wrap up his studies and dissertation and hopefully publish some of his research as a book. Until then, he can be found either editing Wikipedia’s library of articles, or teaching his students how to do the same.

“We’re doing real work,” Vetter says. “(Students are) not just writing another throwaway research paper where it’s like, ‘Ok, the only audience is the instructor, I’m gonna write it, he’s gonna grade it, that’s it.’ They’re doing something to contribute to public knowledge and public culture.”