Delete the Wiki worries and get close to the edit
Online resource gives students access to the mechanics of research. Jack Grove reports
Is Wikipedia the scourge of the academic world? Written and edited by thousands of volunteers with no qualifying credentials, the vast reference site is filled with inaccuracies, encourages plagiarism and debases traditional research skills, its critics claim.
However, others are calling on the academy to embrace the site, saying it can spark scholarly debate, improve teaching and advance knowledge across the world.
About 60 academics and learning support staff gathered at the University of Leicester earlier this month for the UK's first conference on promoting the effective use of Wikipedia within higher education.
The EduWiki Conference 2012, which was held on 5-6 September, looked at the growing trend for using the open resource as a tool to engage students more closely in the pedagogic process.
Martin Poulter, new media manager and website editor at the University of Bristol, said that academics should build Wikipedia into their courses and award credits based on students' editing activities.
"There are...some very poor [Wikipedia] sites that need editing," said Dr Poulter, a volunteer for Wikimedia, the internet encyclopedia's education arm.
"If [students] applied their knowledge to a Wikipedia page, they would get feedback from other users - similar to the review process in academia.
"They might end up writing something that gets thousands of hits and is read more widely than anything published by [their] tutors."
Dr Poulter said he wrote for Wikipedia because of his interest in books, as it provided a good way to summarise texts he had read and to encourage other people to do so, too.
"I write about the philosophy of science and experimental psychology. Psychology is frankly terrible on Wikipedia, but [it would] help if students start to edit these pages," he said.
"Researchers might not want to edit pages themselves, but they could mentor their students to do it."
Such involvement would build bridges, Dr Poulter added.
"At the moment, academics and Wikipedia almost completely ignore each other," he said.
The process of writing for Wikipedia would also help students to improve their citation skills and allow them to engage with other contributors, Dr Poulter added. Wikipedia could even be used by academics to assess students, as every contribution to the site can be traced back to individual users.
"It is a growing trend in the US, and we're getting more questions from individual lecturers here about how it might work," he said.
"Students adapt current articles and improve [them] throughout a course, with each improvement rated by tutors. Every contribution is recorded, and you can see every single change."
Despite its flaws, Wikipedia may prove more useful to students than authoritative textbooks written by experts, Dr Poulter said.
"When you get a textbook, each line has been reviewed, edited and debated, but you don't see that process. On Wikipedia, you do - and this is fairly close to what a university education is."