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Writing Wikipedia

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Last semester I had my third year undergraduate students in the advanced financial reporting unit undertake an assignment on Wikipedia.  They were required to choose a Wikipedia article associated with financial reporting and:

  1. Evaluate the article using Wikipedia’s own criteria
  2. Write an improved article on the topic
  3. Explain why their improved article was superior to the original using Wikipedia’s own criteria.

My rationale behind the assignment task was that students would use Wikipedia despite exhortations from academics never to use it.  I believe that our role as educators is to ensure that students understand the inherent strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia and other encyclopaedia and are able to judge the quality of a Wikipedia article.  With this knowledge students will be less likely to rely on Wikipedia when it is not appropriate to do so.  Banning students from using Wikipedia is doing them a disservice because they don’t learn how to use it properly.

It is also a disservice to students to ban the use of Wikipedia as we are encouraging students to behave dishonestly.  When we design assessment tasks we should avoid putting temptation in the path of students.  This, however, is a different topic to the one I wish to consider in this post.

I reviewed many of the Wikipedia articles associated with financial reporting before setting the assignment.  The articles I reviewed were all terrible.  I felt confident that there was more than enough material for my students to examine.

The first part of the assignment (evaluate an existing article) was done reasonably well.  The only one of Wikipedia’s criteria that students struggled with was the “notability” criterion and this difficulty is somewhat understandable as Wikipedia’s definition of “notable” is geared towards articles on individuals and historical events.

The second part of the assignment was done poorly (writing an improved article).  While students could demonstrate that they had the necessary technical knowledge to write an article, they could not write a good article.  The most common problem was that they could not imagine what information a Wikipedia reader would require on the topic they chose.  Most students wrote it from their perspective – what information an accounting student would need – and, hence, tended to write it as if it was a textbook.  This cost them marks as Wikipedia states clearly in its criteria that it is an encyclopaedia, not a textbook.  In addition, students could not switch out of jargon and into plain English.  Too often I read something like I should “debit accounts receivable” instead of being told that “the amount of money owed to the firm by its customers had increased”.

Another problem that appeared in some of the assignments was the quality of the references used to support the articles the students had written.  Wikipedia states that its preferred references are academic journals or university textbooks.  Very few assignments referenced that material.  When students referenced accounting standards they tended to reference Australian accounting standards.  Australia comprises less than 1% of the world’s population and less than 2% of the population of English speakers in the world – references unique to Australia are not relevant to most Wikipedia readers when the pronouncements of the International Accounting Standards Board could have been used to tell the same story.

Part 3 of the assignment (critiquing their revised article) was also done poorly.  While students showed they could critique others’ work, they could not do the same to their own.  I don’t know whether this comes from a misplaced arrogance or from an inability to see flaws in their own work.  Either way, it is a concern.

My overall impression of this assignment is that achieved many of the things I hoped it would achieve.  I will use this basic structure again but I will improve the scaffolding information I provide rather than leaving it for students to discover through their own research.

Wikipedia: Spawn of the Devil?

September 25, 2011 1 comment

Let’s be honest … Students will look at Wikipedia.  Hopefully, it isn’t the only place they look but there are plenty of times when I couldn’t swear to that.

I have colleagues who will not accept anything from students that is from Wikipedia.  I respect their view but I don’t share it.  I once knew someone who didn’t own a television set because he did not want his children to be exposed to poor quality television programs.  My view is that children should be exposed to television.  It is ubiquitous in our society.  I see no point in pretending it doesn’t exist by ignoring it.  But our children need to learn to be selective and discriminating in their viewing and they will not learn that unless they are exposed to television and that includes making mistakes in their viewing selection; it is all part of the learning process.

My view of Wikipedia is similar.  There is no point in pretending it does not exist, in telling students not to look at it and then expecting that they will accept that.

In finance, Wikipedia covers some topics very well.  Others are not covered very well.  It can be a useful part of student learning to ask them to look at Wikipedia’s explanation of a topic and comment on it.  Can they discriminate between a good Wikipedia article and a poor one?  Do they consider the quality and range of the references, the description of the topic, the dugout of any definitions, the thoroughness of the explanation?

Early in the semester, I tell my students when a topic is well or badly covered by Wikipedia and I explain why.  Later in the semester, I ask the students to tell me what they think.  I have found that some students use Wikipedia as a textbook substitute, or combine it with the textbook and perhaps some other Internet sites.  It would be unrealistic for me to ignore that.

Learning does not only have to come through an assigned textbook.  I want my students to be able to look at a reference, assess and explain whether it is good, bad or mediocre; what is included or excluded from it; and the extent to which it has supported their learning, or failed them.  That does not only apply to sources such as Wikipedia.  I want them to be equally discriminating when reading their textbook.  Textbooks are not always of consistently high quality.  If students can become astute readers, they have taken an important step towards understanding.  You need to understand something to be able to effectively critique it.

If my students want to look at Wikipedia as part of their learning, if that works for them, then I would encourage it, but only if they read widely enough and gain a sufficient level of understanding to be able to become selective and discriminating.  And like children learning about appropriate television selection, I expect some errors in the process.

Categories: Research, Textbooks, Wikipedia