Students in Professor David Silver’s Introduction to Media Studies class learned firsthand about the process of editing Wikipedia last semester in a final project that required them to modify, rearrange and in some cases rewrite the USF and San Francisco Dons Wikipedia pages. Although they encountered some opposition from the seasoned Wikipedians that edit the site, another class will be taking on this same assignment this semester.
“The overall goal,” said Silver, “was to make the University of San Francisco’s Wikipedia page more interesting, accurate, and up-to-date.”
To do this, students were divided into teams, each of which focused on a certain section or subject in the USF wiki article—for example, campus dining, the baseball team, or student-run organizations. These teams set forth to research their subject and find relevant, citable sources from Gleeson Library, as well as on the Internet. An important factor in creating material on Wikipedia is sourcing, according to the Wikipedia policies and guidelines. Without verifiable sources, sections of articles or entire pages may be removed by Wikipedia editors.
Given this danger of “speedy deletion,” students devoted time and care to their research.
Freshman English major Vy Tran was involved in a group that tackled the subject of services for and statistics on international students at USF. Her group, she said, “spent quite a few hours working on our section; we had some class time to make edits, but most of our research and efforts were done outside of class time in the library.”
Silver said he was struck by how diligently these amateur wiki-editors attended to their task.
“What was particularly impressive was the way in which the project mattered to students,” he said. “Most of the students got really into the assignment and worked hard and creatively to find new facts and add interesting content… some groups researched, wrote, and edited entirely new sections on USF’s student population, student groups, and campus green initiatives.”
Some of these entirely new sections faced a little difficulty in getting off the ground, and yet more of the content faced difficulty in remaining intact on Wikipedia.
“Yeah, we had quite a bit of trouble with Wiki editors. My group was relatively lucky,” Tran said. “Other groups…had entire sections or pages removed.”
The students’ conflict with the Wikipedia editors was often polite debate on the discussion forum, although at times, said Tran, the verbal battles were less than friendly.
“I think the editors were all well-meaning,” she said. “They wanted to help make the page better and cleaner. I appreciated that, but I didn’t appreciate how some of them approached us.” For example, she said, one of the Wikipedia editors posted a critical comment saying, “If their parents are paying over 33K in annual tuition for them to edit Wikipedia articles, I suppose they must feel entitled to write about the cafeteria food.”
“It’s just mean,” said Tran.
In the end, she said, much of the student-editor disagreement “came down to these questions: Who’s the intended audience for the University of San Francisco Wikipedia page? Who visits it the most? If the answer to those questions are current students and prospective students, shouldn’t the information reflect what they want to know about the school? And as a follow-up to that: what information belongs on Wikipedia? What is considered encyclopedic?”
By the time the assignment had concluded, most of the disputes had been resolved, and a good amount of the student-produced content remained, if changed and moved around a little. In many cases, students also cooperated with the Wikipedia editors to correct their errors and hone their work.
Tran said she thought that while most of her group’s section had been modified and shuffled around, the essentials remained intact, and the article benefited from the changes.
“Some of it was amazing,” said Silver. “In all, I think USF’s Wikipedia entry grew three-fold in size and content.”
Tran agreed that the USF article looks much better post-project. “There’s a lot more information on the USF page now than before, so that’s nice,” she said.
However, there is still work to be done. “I’d love to see more images on it,” said Tran. “Our school is so beautiful.”
Also, the project itself had a few flaws. “I don’t think we – my students and I – were knowledgeable enough about Wikipedia – how it works, what constitutes “notable” information, and what to do when a Wikipedian tries to edit your work,” Silver said.
The time constraint was also a problem for Tran, who said, “[The work] was too great to handle for the time span we had, which I think was about two weeks at most. We did well, all things considered, but if, for example, it had been a semester-long project, I think the USF Wiki page would be even better.”
Because of this, and because last semester’s final assignment received so much positive feedback from students, the Wiki project will be making a comeback this semester. Instead of around 80 media studies students, the editing will be performed by a group of just 12: Silver’s Digital Media Production class. And this time, these would-be Wikipedians will be far more prepared.
“Already, Brenda Hough, a librarian and Ph.D student who is writing her dissertation on Wikipedia, visited our class and taught us a lot about the complexity of Wikipedia. Also, this semester’s students have the benefit of having created and shared digital media for nearly 15 weeks,” Silver said. “I’m pretty excited to see what they create.”