Here I am in Cardiff bay at this year's Eduwiki conference, meeting up with people I know and making some new friends and interesting contacts. Wikimedia UK (or at least the Wikipedia in Education part of it) have some long term goals, such as acquiring more student societies, and getting more HE teachers to use Wikipedia to teach academic writing skills. Martin Poulter made a quotable quote by saying that Wikipedia is "a chance to pop open the bonnet of knowledge". It is a way that you can see the workings of the knowledge process, and some of the speakers today have shown how that process happens. For example, Humphrey Southall uses Wikipedia for teaching geography to first year students by making stub articles better on an English village better. Students are first given a strict set of criteria to choose an article to improve; a set of websites that can be used, for example on place names; government statistics and the Doomsday book. Interpreting that information can become a good exercise in statistical comprehension. Students are encouraged to put their article up on-line for the Wikipedia community to comment and contribute, and this also gives the lecturer an unique opportunity to see the students working not only through their own creation but also how they deal with the Wikipedia community.
Students found that the Wikipedia editor comments were much more outspoken to those of their tutors, and they discovered how to deal with the stress of working in public.Humphrey wondered about the general benefits for Wikipedia and said that at least for the common reader there is now a standard set of good articles, but asked the question: is it good for the Wikipedia community? because it did cause a lot of work for some editors. Wikipedia editing is also being taught to students in France and Australia.
Jean Frederic Berthelot spoke about working with PhD students in Lille as part of a wider post graduate programme with other French universities. All their PhD students need to do certain number of seminars and courses, and learning the use and editing or Wikipedia is one of them. The students create an account and add a banner to their userpage explaining that they are part of this course. The course teachers comment about the students' work via Google docs to keep them private and give students a skype call halfway through the course to encourage its completion. So far the outcome of the course has been lots of edits, but it seems not to have retained any of them as editors.
These examples make me think that Wikipedia has become such a ubiquitous and everyday resource that students need to understand not only how to search the articles, but to know how to edit and write an article. Perhaps the aim of the exercise should not be to get more Wikipedia Editors, or to improve and increase article, because those are short term goals. Training students to correctly edit Wikipedia gives them the discrimination to be informed users of the encyclopedia able to appreciate the research that goes with a good article and the ability to realise when an article is not good. It is just like learning how to write a report, or an essay, or presentation. you may learn how to write an essay at school or university, but not need to write one ever again once, but you will have learn how to structure a narrative which is a transferable skill. Similarly, students may not write a Wikipedia article again, but will know how to write a concise, unbiased summary a valuable skill in many situations.