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Professor incorporates Wikipedia into course syllabus

By Kendal Mitchell

May 28, 2013 1:19 a.m.

Her eyes grew wide and her speech sped up as Stephanie Solis discussed a preacher from the 1930s who led protests for farmer and labor rights, the topic of her first Wikipedia entry.

The second-year history student, is one of 85 students writing and editing their own Wikipedia entries for the course American Working Class Movements, a UCLA class on labor history.

At the beginning of spring quarter, Tobias Higbie, an associate professor in the UCLA history department, instructed his U.S. labor history class to create Wikipedia pages on missing or underdeveloped entries about United States labor, radicalism and economic justice movements.

Wikipedia is a collaborative and free Internet encyclopedia where volunteers edit articles written by any person.

Students in Higbie’s class chose a topic from a list of underrepresented labor issues and have been using the duration of the quarter to research their topic, Higbie said. They also have been learning how to create and edit information on Wikipedia, he said.

Higbie’s class is the first UCLA course to incorporate Wikipedia into its syllabus, said LiAnna Davis, a spokesperson from the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia and aims to promote the growth and distribution of free educational content.

Higbie reached out to Tim Davenport, a Wikipedia editor, to help him form the class project. Higbie said he used the detailed instructions provided by Wikipedia to craft the assignment.

Higbie said he thinks having students publish their research online makes the assignment consequential. In addition, Higbie said he saw how Wikipedia lacked information about specific labor topics covered in his class, and he wanted his students to fill the void.

A student in Higbie’s class, Cam Rowland, said he liked working on this project more than writing essays.

“It‘s cool to be a producer of information, compared to a consumer,” Rowland, a third-year history student, said before Higbie’s lecture. “For many (students), we normally soak in information. I like producing new information (instead).”

Higbie added he thinks students often use Wikipedia as a starting point of their research. He said some entries are good, others are terrible and some entries do not exist.

The history professor required his students to go through an online training session to understand Wikipedia’s style of writing. He said the online training teaches students how to write in Wikipedia’s neutral point of view.

While some students are excited about putting their work on Wikipedia, Higbie said some students are apprehensive about strangers editing their work.

Others said they are hesitant about Wikipedia’s legitimacy as a credible research tool.

“I would never use Wikipedia as a source,” said Claudia Wijaya, a second-year economics student. “If I type my topic into Google and Wikipedia pops up first, I will normally ignore it.”

Solis, however, said she thinks the project is more engaging than other assignments she has completed in the past.

Emily Curd, a graduate student in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, also used Wikipedia to engage students in deeper research. Like Higbie, she assigned students to create new Wikipedia entries. She said Wikipedia is more likely to be held accountable, since any public users can edit its content.

“The assignment helped me get something more out of my class,” Curd said. “I like how it didn’t stop at the desk and educates a broader audience.”

Higbie said he hopes this project will encourage his students to reconsider the nature of their sources and how they can contribute to the perpetuation of knowledge for a larger audience

“Students get to do something real and enrich Wikipedia (at the same time),” Higbie said.

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Kendal Mitchell
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