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12 April, 2013  ▪  Liubomyr Krupnytskyi

Wikipedia as a School Project

Oleksandr Zheliba, lecturer at Nizhyn University in Chernihiv Oblast, encourages his students to write Wikipedia articles instead of reports and projects

University curricula demand that students be given creative individual assignments. These largely take the form of “reports” which students often copy from their predecessors or download from the Internet. Assistant Professor Oleksandr Zheliba of the Mykola Hohol Nizhyn State University does not forbid his students from writing reports but offers them an alternative: for the third year now, students can create (or edit) articles in Wikipedia. In addition to the obvious advantages for the Ukrainian-language segment of this online reference resource, this approach has other benefits. Young people develop a better understanding of the topics they are working on and also acquire technical skills. Most importantly though, it changes their attitude towards studies, because the results of their work are not just seen by their professor, but also by thousands of online users.

U.W.: Your experience forces a person to look at Wikipedia from a different perspective – it transforms from a source of information into a teaching tool. What led you to this idea?

About eight years ago, the Ministry of Education introduced a mandatory course in modern information technology. This course is taken by fifth-year students at every higher education institution. Specialists specifically came to our university with a training programme for teachers. Among other things, it included tasks that would teach students to implement the results of their work in the form of presentations, web-sites and booklets. I liked the idea, but when I started working with students, most of them fell short of the necessary standard. I also taught history and needed to search for a lot of professional information, finding it in large amounts in Wikipedia. When I saw that something was incorrect, I submitted my corrections. This is when I thought of involving students in this type of activity. So I suggested that they edit Wikipedia as an alternative to doing projects. If they edited Wikipedia articles, they, no doubt, learned to search, select, save and sort information.

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U.W.: How does this method differ from others that are usually used by high school and university teachers? What are its advantages?

At a meeting of graduates in my high school, I came across an album displayed on a stand in the literature room. It contained essays that we wrote as pupils. I was so happy that they had been preserved. How else can you show a young person that his or her work is important? Following the established methods of teaching, if you give a task to a pupil (for example, making a knight out of plasticine), you have to put it on display for everyone to see so that the child can also see the results of his/her work and is encouraged to continue to work diligently. In Wikipedia, everything is in front of the teacher, who can check the work done by a student. Let’s see, the article was edited by someone: it used to look like this and these are the changes after editing. You can see the progress: what was done, who did the work, on what days and even at what time. In other words, Wikipedia permits the monitoring of both the process and the end result. Another benefit is that this is not the writing of reports “for the desk drawer”.. In some cases, they become the starting point for term papers, but for the most part, they gather dust somewhere on, in or under the teacher’s desk.

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U.W.: I guess that everyone knows the value of a student’s report these days..

It is really unfortunate that all of this information (no matter how it is written) goes down the drain. This does not only pertain to reports. There was a period at our university, when students made presentations on a certain topic. But what were these presentations in reality? They took pieces of information from Wikipedia and other sources… It was not clear who the real author was. So the benefit was dubious. One pedagogical rule says: for a person to have the desire to work, he/she needs to see the point of it. It is important for everyone to understand that the result of their work can be useful to someone and that their efforts have not been in vain. Another advantage is a better understanding of the substance of the material. Confucius once said: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand”.

U.W.: How do students react to your innovation?

It depends. There were those who simply wanted to get the highest grade with a minimum amount of work, but they soon got drawn into it. A student created an article; I made a few comments and suggested revising some things. Later, I saw that he was more eager to write the next article and made fewer mistakes. Then he tackled another article. Students work on reports in their freshman year. They have  archive and regional ethnology practical work – these are essentially tiny research projects, and their results are quite suitable for publication in Wikipedia. In my opinion, this is much more efficient than having this information gather dust until it is eventually sent to an archive or thrown out as scrap paper. Many questions arise during the process. A little two-part handbook would be good to have. One part would contain the rules for editing Wikipedia articles and a collection of templates needed for a certain branch of knowledge. The second part would offer tips on writing articles on history or other subjects.

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U.W.: When students work on Wikipedia articles to fulfil a teacher’s task, doesn’t it contradict the spirit of this electronic encyclopedia, which is created on a completely voluntary basis?

Not at all. Each student chooses his/her own form of work and his/her own area in laboratory classes. If students can write excellent articles for Wikipedia, let them continue to hone this skill. But if it is not their cup of tea, then they shouldn’t tackle it. There are other options. In the first year of studies, history students are taught specialized disciplines. One of the tasks includes drawing their family tree. Some do it and forget about it, while others dig deeper. If in their freshman year, students realize that this is something interesting and become “hooked” on this work, they could then suggest to the teacher that they would like to edit this segment of Wikipedia, which will be counted as their individual work.

U.W.: How did the university administration react to your initiative? Are any of your colleagues following your example?

Types of individual work are proposed by a teacher, and are simply approved at staff meetings. As far as the attitude of the administration is concerned, there is no objection, just understanding. I know for a fact that there are teachers who edit Wikipedia articles themselves, but it is hard for me to say whether they propose this kind of work to their students. Many come to this idea on their own. Some of my colleagues may want to work along these lines, but are afraid to admit that they lack competence in something. Not only before their students but also before each other. The above-mentioned handbook on editing Wikipedia is not as important for students, as it is for teachers.

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U.W.: In this case, the community is more virtual than real. Does this type of work give a sense of community?

To some, it may be their first experience of unpaid public work that nevertheless, brought satisfaction. Creating Wikipedia articles may sometimes hurt youthful maximalism, because you may be corrected, but a person has to go through this. I think a sense of community comes later, when a person takes a more conscientious approach. Also, editing conflicts can arise as you work with other colleagues. You then begin to interact more closely and learn about the other people working on the same topic. You have one vision, he/she has another, and you need to find arguments and present them clearly. This is also something that has to be learned

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