The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 23, 2014

Wikipedia pops up in bibliographies, and even college curriculum

LOS ANGELES — All through high school, Ani Schug was told to steer clear of Wikipedia. Her teachers talked about the popular online encyclopedia “as if it wasn’t serious or trustworthy” and suggested it only be used as a tip sheet.

Imagine her surprise this spring when her American politics professor at Pomona College assigned the class to write detailed entries for Wikipedia instead of traditional term papers.

Turns out it was a lot harder than the students anticipated. Their projects had to be researched, composed and coded to match Wikipedia’s strict protocols. Schug and her classmates wound up citing 218 scholarly legal and newspaper sources for their entry on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations for ballot initiative campaigns.

Then came the really scary step: All their work was posted publicly on Wikipedia for reading and editing by a potentially immense audience.

“It felt more real that other people will be reading us besides just our group and the teacher,” said Schug, 19, who just completed her freshman year at Pomona. “It makes us feel more obligated to do a good job and present the facts in an unbiased way.”

Once the bane of teachers, Wikipedia and entry-writing exercises are becoming more common on college campuses as academia and the online site drop mutual suspicions and seek to cooperate. In at least 150 courses at colleges in the U.S. and Canada, including UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco’s medical school, Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University, students were assigned to create or expand Wikipedia entries this year.

The result, supporters say, has been better-researched articles about, for example, the causes of paralyzing strokes and the history of the American West. And, they say, students are becoming better prepared for a future of digital information.

“Even the best research papers get buried in a drawer somewhere,” said Amanda Hollis-Brusky, the Pomona politics professor who assigned the Wikipedia projects. “These make a real contribution to the public discourse.”

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