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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.