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Wikipedia project spurs research, service learning


It’s an almost ideal class project – one that serves the public while students conduct research and learn by doing.

The setting is the History and Systems of Psychology class, a senior-level capstone course taught each semester by James Council, NDSU professor and chair of psychology. The students, usually in three-member teams, evaluate Wikipedia’s online articles about psychology. Sometimes they update the entries, other times they edit them and occasionally they write entirely new material.

“This is service-learning on an international scale – people all over the world can see what the students are doing. They are supplying a really important service and they are learning while they do it,” Council explained. “The students are contributing to the public’s knowledge about psychology.”

During his spring semester course, Council’s 57 students added about 30,500 words to 14 Wikipedia articles related to psychology, according to the Wiki Education Foundation. Topics ranged from biographies about leading psychologists Arnold Lazarus and Eleanor Gibson to material on endogenous depression and minor depressive disorder. The students worked with a content specialist supplied by the foundation to validate their submissions.

The foundation also reports the students’ articles have been viewed about 16,400 times.

“Wikipedia is often the first step for the public when they are looking for information. It’s important that it be accurate,” said Council, a participant in the Year of Science initiative where university faculty and students work to supply reliable material to Wikipedia.

Council’s classes began working with Wikipedia in fall 2012 – this spring marked the eighth semester that NDSU students made contributions.

“Capstone courses are intended for students to merge the knowledge they have gained from other classes, develop critical thinking skills, learn teamwork and apply their knowledge. This Wikipedia project does all of that,” Council said.

Most students agree.

During fall 2014, Council surveyed his students about the ongoing project. A total of 85 percent said they would recommend it to future classes, and 88 percent said it helped them develop online collaborative writing skills.

"Dr. Council's class is a great example of science communication as a form of service learning. Students are asked to write clearly for a public audience, and the public is learning more about psychology as a result. It's a win-win,” said Eryk Salvaggio, Wiki Education Foundation communications manager, noting Council’s class was mentioned in a recent Washington Post story.

More than 90 percent of the submissions by Council’s students is published by Wikipedia. “I find value in the projects and most of my students find value in it. They know they are making a significant contribution,” he said.

Council’s class project is part of a national effort by faculty and students to contribute accurate material to Wikipedia in various fields of study. Other NDSU faculty are doing similar work with their students, including Bernhardt Saini-Eidukat, associate professor of geology; Melissa Vosen Callens, assistant professor of communication; and Ann Burnett, professor of communication and director of women and gender studies.

In Vosen-Callens’ Digital Media and Society course, students photographed local events and monuments to illustrate Wikipedia articles. Students in her Writing in the Health and Professions and Issues in Communication classes worked on Wikipedia articles related to course content.

Students in Saini-Eidukat’s Mineralogy course did work for Wikipedia, as did Burnett’s Gender and Communication course.

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