11 July 2012

Wikipedia is playing a growing role in academia at The University of Queensland, with students researching and writing high-quality articles for the online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia is now the fifth most consulted website in the world.

Students of the Research Methods (ENGL3000) course, run by the UQ School of English, Media Studies and Art History, are producing Wikipedia articles that are available online for the world to read, but not before stringent double-checking for accuracy and extensive referencing was enforced.

Course convenor Kerry Kilner, says the course resulted in high-quality articles that had been painstakingly cross-referenced, and students now had a greater understanding of how the online community was used for knowledge production.

The students researched the lives of Australian writers and organisations, starting first in the physical archives at the UQ Fryer Library, then moving onto more scholarly research grounded in peer review and other published material.

“Because Wikipedia does not allow the publication of original research, the students have to move from the archival material to find evidence for statements they are making in previously published resources,” said Ms Kilner, who is also Director of the AustLit resource for Australian literature.

“The students work in groups, handling rare archival material and learning traditional research methods. They then need to find legitimate secondary sources to support what they found in the archives.”

“Almost universally at the beginning of the semester they totally freak out, but then they get really stuck into it, finding it a very challenging but also very rewarding assessment. I am very proud of what they achieved.”

By the end of the semester, the students have gained a strong understanding of the way Wikipedia operates, with the Australian Wikimedia community invited to improve and expand on articles, comment or take issue with content.

Ms Kilner said despite some widely reported cases of malicious trolling and vandalism of articles, Wikipedia was a far more dependable source than some may realise.

“A number of studies over the past few years have assessed the trustworthiness of Wikipedia articles, and comparisons with other reference works such as Encyclopedia Britannica demonstrate that it is quite dependable. As with any reference tool, it’s important to apply a critical eye to the information provided,” she said.

“The process teaches students the research skills needed for writing an authoritative article but also the value of online collaboration. It alerts them to the way the digital age is moving in terms of the development of content and the communities created around that content,” said Ms Kilner.

“The really big benefit is they create something that is a publicly-available piece of scholarly work in which they have an investment. In a lot of ways it’s great training for a post-graduate academic research project, while preparing them for working collaboratively in a professional setting.

“I make sure the research subjects are relevant to the disciplines in which the students are working in the hope they will be committed to making sure their areas of interest are correctly represented in Wikipedia.”

Wikimedia Australia President John Vandenberg called for more such courses at universities.

“These articles are brilliant, especially for new Wikipedia editors,” he said.

“This is an excellent example of using Wikipedia in education.”

Five of the Wikipedia articles produced by the ENGL3000 students over the past two years can be seen at the links below:
Charles Henry Chomley Union for Australian Women Queensland Council for Civil Liberties James Crawford Pamela Crawford

The Research Methods (ENGL3000 course), in its third year in the current format, has a limit of 30 students and is available to students across EMSAH.

A report on how other academics are using Wikipedia in education can be accessed here.

Media: Kerry Kilner, UQ School of English, Media Studies and Art History (07 336 53313 or k.kilner@uq.edu.au)