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Odd Bedfellows

Rather than warning students away from Wikipedia, some professors are now embracing it

Wikipedia, long an academic bogeyman, is being invited into the classroom in an innovative new program that made its Canadian debut this academic year at U of T.

Since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia’s anyone-can-contribute ethos has fit awkwardly into the academic landscape. Many volunteer Wikipedia editors regard institutional academia with suspicion; many profs aren’t sold on the idea of an encyclopedia written by an army of amateurs. The Wikimedia Foundation’s Global Education Program is an attempt to finally bridge that gap.

“Students are using Wikipedia, whether we like it or not,” says Michael Dick, a teaching assistant currently assisting Prof. Rhonda McEwen’s first-year course “The Rhetoric of Digital and Interactive Environments.” To Dick, a PhD student in the Faculty of Information, the question becomes “how can we teach them how to use Wikipedia as an effective starting point, to find other resources that are more scholarly?”

Professors involved in the program incorporate Wikipedia into course assignments, with students analyzing Wikipedia articles and often making their own contributions and edits. Four U of T classes – including Introduction to Psychology at U of T Scarborough and Intellectual Property: Copyright, Trademark and Patent at the Faculty of Law – took part in the fall 2011 semester, and one more began participating in the winter 2012 term. Through the partnership, Wikipedia improves its quality, and students get a valuable lesson in what Dick calls “critical literacy.”

For McEwen, who teaches at U of T Mississauga, Wikipedia’s collaborative environment is a natural to study in a course about how people write and communicate on the web. Online, “there is the potential to be moderated by an audience you may never meet,” she says. “It’s very different from writing in other environments. I want students to get a feel for that kind of rhetoric.” By contributing to the world’s largest encyclopedia today, McEwen and Dick believe that students will be savvier, more critical readers tomorrow.

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