A classroom assignment that “makes the world a better place”

Dr. Ben Karney was interviewed by Howard Blume on KPFK’s show Deadline LA in March, along with two of his doctorate students, as well as Wiki Education’s Deputy Director and Director of Programs LiAnna Davis. He had a lot to say about the nature of a Wikipedia assignment, and why, as a psychology professor, public scholarship like this matters. His students also praised a Wikipedia assignment as a way of engaging the public with academic research in a new way.

Kimberly Martin, a student from Dr. Karney’s Fall 2017 course, improved the Wikipedia article about perspective-taking, which the article explains is “the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual.” Kimberly explains that Dr. Karney gave students a lot of leeway in choosing a topic that they’d be passionate about, “which I appreciated. For me, just watching the news over the past several months really got me thinking about perspective-taking and how maybe people are not perspective-taking as much in society as would be helpful. And I started diving into that literature for my own research project.” When students have a personal investment in a topic, they feel a greater motivation and confidence in themselves as subject-matter experts. A Wikipedia assignment becomes an opportunity for them to build confidence in their voice as scholars.

Alena Egner, another student in Dr. Karney’s course, wrote a new article for the assignment, one about the ovulatory shift hypothesis. The article has since been deemed of Good Article quality on the site and has been viewed almost 10,000 times. Alena explains that the ovulatory shift hypothesis is “a scientific theory in the field of evolutionary psychology that women may experience changes in their thoughts and behavior across the menstrual cycle, especially in their preferences for a mate.” Since she has been researching the topic already as part of her degree, the Wikipedia assignment was a great opportunity to bring all that she knows to a public forum.

Improving Wikipedia’s coverage of academic disciplines not only provides great opportunities for students to master course materials and develop critical skills, but it also brings academic scholarship out from behind paywalls to benefit public knowledge.

“The classic social psychologists who founded this discipline really wanted to make a change; they wanted to do science that had implications for the outside world,” says Dr. Karney. “And it felt a little bit inconsistent to be doing a class where we never interacted with the outside world, we only interacted with each other and with other social psychologists. So when I first read about this initiative, it seemed an obvious way to start practicing social psychology in a way that connected it to the outside world, as the discipline was designed to do.”

For politically and socially relevant topics, the far reach of this kind of project is especially important. Students have a hand in ensuring that a resource that millions use daily presents accurate information. They must also adhere to Wikipedia’s strict guidelines about what’s considered a reliable source to cite on the platform, requiring students to understand what “trustworthy” information looks like.

“I think Wikipedia stands for the beacon of facts in the modern age,” says LiAnna Davis. “And that’s because it’s not relying on one particular source. It’s not just the New York Times; it’s not just the Washington Post; it’s not just a particular book, journal, or news source. Wikipedia is a compendium of the viewpoints that are expressed in all published sources that fit the reliable source definition on Wikipedia. And so anybody for whom facts matter, and for anybody who believes in the principle of having a truth in the world, Wikipedia can stand out as that source that pulls together what everyone says.”

So students learning to edit Wikipedia as a classroom assignment benefits everyone involved. Students gain valuable skills and are more motivated to produce quality work, and the public has access to a more comprehensive and reliable resource.

“I think that this assignment is the best thing that I’ve ever done as a professor because every time the class is over, the world is a better place,” says Dr. Karney. “And every time the class is over, students have interacted with people beyond the classroom and had to compromise and face real critique and feedback. I just think it’s thrilling. And the idea of what I used to do, which was assign a term paper, just seems so bland in comparison. … Rather than write a term paper that only I’ll read, how much more interesting to say your assignment is to write a paper that thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands of people will read.”

Kimberly explains that even just speaking to undergraduates in her lab at UCLA about the assignment has already sparked some excitement about her topic.

“They said, ‘You’re writing an article for Wikipedia? And I can Google it? And I can read it?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely you can! And I can get your feedback and that would be great!”

Listen to the KPFK segment here:

To listen to the full interview, click on the March 19th segment here. To learn how you and your students can get involved, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to contact@wikiedu.org. To read about Wiki Education’s commitment to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of politically and socially relevant topics through our programs, check out our Future of Facts initiative.

Header image: File:Janss Steps, Royce Hall in background, UCLA.jpgb r e n t, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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