By Rebecca Silton
Loyola University Chicago
After reading Mahzarin Banaji’s (2011) article in the Observer calling APS members to action, I was sold on using the APS Wikipedia Initiative (APSWI) as a classroom tool. It was just a matter of waiting until the right course came along.
When I was scheduled to teach a graduate class in clinical neuropsychology this past fall semester, I decided it was the perfect course to try out APSWI because I always strive to include a community outreach component in the courses that I teach. The mission of APSWI provided a great vehicle for promoting social justice, particularly within the context of a Neuropsychology course. As medical paternalism is gradually being replaced by do-it-yourself internet research, providing accurate cutting-edge information about neuropsychological research and related diagnoses to an internet audience is necessary for individuals to make informed decisions about their medical care. Wikipedia is frequently accessed for health-related information, including information about neuropsychological and psychological diagnoses. By joining the ranks of professors and students who were already participating in APSWI, I was excited to provide my students with an opportunity to contribute to this important group effort. Rather than assign the traditional final paper that would ultimately get buried six bytes under on a hard drive and never see the light of day as a published manuscript, I assigned “Project NeuroWiki” and invited my students to learn a little syntax and travel into unchartered web territory with me.
Overall, Project NeuroWiki was a very rewarding experience for me and my students. I am extremely proud of my students’ hard work, reflecting their intrinsic motivation to improve their selected Wikipedia pages (see anonymous feedback provided by my students). Most students indicated that they will continue to update and maintain their Wikipedia pages after the course ends. I will continue to follow their selected Wiki pages to track interesting developments as new research becomes available. It is refreshing to know that my students’ final projects will extend beyond the physical walls of the classroom and continue past the short duration of the academic semester.
Unanticipated experiences arose during the course of the semester. There were no tired excuses about accidentally loosing work due to a hard-drive crash or a surprise “blue screen of death”. Instead new challenges presented: while working on their Wikipedia pages, students collaborated with other individuals from other universities and countries (e.g., one student formed a collaboration with an individual from Australia). This important level of collaboration would have never occurred if students were writing a traditional term paper. Learning how to efficiently collaborate is becoming crucial as psychological science becomes increasingly multidisciplinary. However, this type of collaboration also poses unique challenges for grading. Wiki pages are dynamic, quickly changing documents. How should an instructor grade a project that is necessarily collaborative and not static? How do instructors measure the unique impact that students have on their Wikipedia pages in the context of collaboration? These are important questions for professors to grapple with as web-based multidisciplinary final projects become the new “norm.”
Another related issue occurred when one student had finished a lot of research on the page that she intended on updating. After her research was completed and she was gearing up to update her selected Wiki page, she realized that another group of students from a different university had already made significant changes to the page that she was working on. It would be helpful to have a better method to coordinate APSWI across universities. Similarly, other students occasionally found it challenging that other people were working on their pages at the same time as they were (although I see this as an important educational moment in learning how to effectively direct collaborative efforts). A final unanticipated issue arose when a student discovered that following months of his hard work, someone had replaced his entire Wiki page with the biography of an international football star. He quickly remedied this, but it was surely a stressful moment to find that his entire final project had been wrongfully edited.
As an instructor, I struggled to arrange a grading rubric for an activity that I had never personally done before, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in the rubric that I provided for my students. Another difficulty was that the Wiki pages that the students were improving were at different stages of development, so the amount and type of work that each student needed to do improve their specific page varied. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to ask each student to submit a proposal of their changes for me to review so that I could provide useful feedback to guide their projects from an early stage. I also was unsure how to account for the time it would take students to learn Wikipedia syntax, particularly since it was reasonable to expect that there would be variance in their skills due to different exposure to coding/programming tasks. In the future, I will provide an in-class Wikipedia/syntax tutorial to ensure that students have a similar foundational background before starting the project. Despite facing some challenges and weaknesses, this final project was a huge success that will surely influence countless individuals beyond the doors of the Ivory Tower.
Rebecca Silton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is presently an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago.
“I really enjoyed that the research and time spent on the course final would go for more than just a grade, but also aid public knowledge.”
“All of the work actually means something! It is helping others to be more informed, especially in areas I know about. Learning the syntax is a challenge, but once you know it — you know it!”
“One thing I really loved about NeuroWiki was feeling like what I was writing about could help other people understand my topic. In general, it was easier to be motivated to write because it felt like a publication rather than a term paper”
“This project made me feel like I was truly contributing to the scientific community a fun, and extremely useful way. It’s really disappointing to see how few articles are well put together. I love explaining to others what this project is and how it’s happening not just at our school — very cool, very commendable!”
“I think the wiki project is a fantastic assignment. It is important for us to ensure that information in our field is presented to the general population correctly. It took a lot of effort to learn all that coding! Definitely a worthwhile project.”
“I also feel that our impact of giving information to thousands of unknown people is immeasurable and exciting! This experience has motivated me to make more contributions on my own in the future.”
“I really liked that the project was applied and the information will be used to better the field. It’s encouraging to know other people (besides you and I) might read this work. This was a motivating factor to want to do a good/comprehensive job. “
“Innovative idea, creative final project, reaches more people (as opposed to a final paper), learned a lot in general about wiki, how to post info, and quality of info up there. New and different! I like it when professors think outside the box!”
“I think this is an innovative project and that the intent is positive. I appreciate how we are working to disseminate information to a majority of people and not just keeping it locked up in the “Ivory Tower”. I think that this is a great idea that should be continued in future semesters in order to help ensure that people who use Wikipedia as a primary source are getting accurate information that is both thorough and empirically validated.”
“This has been a worthwhile project. I appreciate working on an assignment that will have real impact after the completion of the course. Overall, it was a great replacement for the standard term paper. “
“I liked doing Wiki instead of a final paper so others would benefit from the work.”