Wikipedia was the "textbook" in a Western Civilization course at George Mason University this spring. Historian Mills Kelly, a member of the Center for History and New Media and contributor to the Digital Campus podcast, has been experimenting with Wikipedia assignments for several semesters. For History of Western Civilization (see syllabus), one of two history courses students may take to fulfill a general education requirement, Kelly decided to make Wikipedia a central resource. According to Kelly, most of the traditional alternatives "are largely one fact after another and so they tend to reinforce students’ beliefs that history is just a big pile of facts to memorize." For such facts, Kelly reasoned, "Since they are going to use Wikipedia anyway, why not go ahead and assign it?"
Early in the course, students created short new entries on Wikipedia. They kept track of the changes over the past few months. This week the students posted about the Wikipedia experience in the course blog, Western Civ As We Know It.
The fates of the students' entries varied widely. Most students reported at least limited contributions from other editors, ranging from copy-editing and formatting to bot edits and categorization to substantive editing to deletion. Image policy was a particular source of frustration for the students, as a number reported the deletion of the images they had uploaded (in one case, multiple times). For many, it was a challenge to find an uncovered topic in the first place (and some only found an available title for a topic covered under another name—resulting in the removal of duplicated content). Though some students were excited that strangers had contributed to their articles, others were upset by the changes to their prose.
Students typically came away with more skepticism about Wikipedia content. One student wrote, "my views have very much changed about using this website as a real creditable[sic] source to get information. I say this because I had no real knowledge about the article that I had written..." However, a few came away more confident in Wikipedia's reliability. "Although perhaps there is some inaccurate information somewhere on the site," said one, "I am sure that before long it will be removed and replaced by more factual information." This student also found an instance of vandalism "kind of flattering"; the only other student to mention vandalism also found it more interesting and amusing than troubling.
The assignment itself was generally well-received. Students found it useful and in many cases enjoyable, and Kelly was confident that it would be educationally relevant as well: "The Wikipedia assignments I’ve been giving over the past year have certainly made a dent in my students’ belief that the Wikipedia is the best possible source for historical information and have taught them how to use this resource in appropriately critical ways."