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Canadian prof: Wikipedia makes kids study harder

Provided you use it as an exam, not an info source

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A Canadian English prof says that the use of Wikipedia, in defiance of accepted wisdom, makes students produce better work.

This is achieved, however, not by the kids finding stuff out on the notoriously unreliable site, but rather by getting them to write material for it. Fear of criticism by the obsessive Wiki-fiddler community apparently motivates youngsters far more than the worry that their academic supervisors might catch them out in an error.

Brenna Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in British Columbia, discovered this by experimenting on "approximately 70" students in her first-year Canadian literature course. The undergraduates were assigned the task of creating or updating biographical encyclopaedia articles on obscure Canadian writers. They were compelled to use normal academic sources and references (in the context of Eng Lit) such as scholarly or mainstream-media articles, authors' websites etc.

According to Gray, the students' performance and motivation increased dramatically once it was revealed that their output would be posted on Wikipedia.

“They were way more careful about citations and about information being correct,” she said, presenting her studies at a fuzzy-studies conference in Canada over the weekend. “The fact that Wikipedia is a public space where the information that they have researched is going to be read by other people… that made them take the assignment much more seriously.”

Gray's remarks were reported in the National Post. It would appear that her students felt that their work would be much more sternly marked by Wiki-fiddlers than by Gray herself.

“Suddenly, I’m not the only arbiter of correctness," she said. "There’s this whole volunteer army of people who will grade their work for them."

Normally in cases of Wikipedia's effects on academia - or indeed other fields of endeavour such as journalism, politics etc - the story is one of lazy students, hacks, speechwriters etc clipping stuff from the site without checking it or even disguising it before claiming it as their own work. Today we hear of a new way to exploit the unpaid Wikipedian: lazy college professors can use the crowdsourced encyclo-custodians to mark their students' work, again without any guarantee that they will do so properly or accurately. ®

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