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Fine-tuning Wikipedia

Count James Madison University senior Stephen Jones as one of the Wikipedians at James Madison University who are working hard this semester to improve the content on the popular resource website. In the process, Jones and 80 more JMU students are honing their researching, writing and editing skills.

“Being a Wikipedian allows me to work more confidently with Wikipedia,” Jones said. “It is a great idea for college students to work with Wikipedia because it will help them argue the fact that Wikipedia is useful in scholarly research, while also learning new editing and research skills.”

The students, enrolled in either Instructor Cindy Allen’s Professional and Technical Writing class or Professor Maria Papadakis’ Energy Economics and Policy class, are contributing to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Public Policy Initiative to systematically improve the content of Wikipedia articles about course-related topics. “My students are taking existing U.S. public policy blurbs that were written, but they have lots of problems — they need expanding, editing, citing, etc.,” Allen said.

The nonprofit foundation started the initiative in 2010 to work with college professors to incorporate writing and editing Wikipedia entries into their curriculum. This semester, the 81 JMU students have been diligently working to write new articles and improve existing ones in the areas of U.S. energy policy and U.S. public policy. JMU is one of 22 colleges involved in the initiative to improve the content on the English-language Wikipedia site.

“Wikipedia offered us a list of about 150 articles that needed work, and I let my students pick any topics they wanted to learn more about, to research and to edit,” Allen said. “The students are enjoying working on their articles. Getting to research, write and edit real content and publishing the articles has been exciting.”

Junior Alex Stinson has been involved with Wikipedia since 2008 when he began editing entries and joined Wikimedia D.C., the local volunteer chapter for Wikipedia, in 2009. JMU’s involvement in the initiative began in fall 2010 when Stinson, now a Wikipedia campus ambassador and online ambassador, began facilitating workshops for faculty about teaching with Wikipedia and reaching out to faculty who might be interested in the teaching assignments. Stinson approached Dr. Jeffrey Tang, an associate professor of integrated science and technology, about the project. Stinson and Tang worked together to identify Wikipedia entries that needed improvement and new topics. After beginning the research and talking with other professors, the initiative gained interest campuswide.

“People, especially students, may not understand the Wikipedia community or the processes which go into the site, but they trust it every day as a research tool,” Stinson said. “Wikipedia receives some great content. Students in our Public Policy classes contribute to areas in Wikipedia we would probably never get our volunteers to explore thoroughly. Their expertise in the field in which they are taking classes in allow them to provide a thorough perspective on the topic, immersed in the topic already.”

Editing Wikipedia, with the guidance of trained Wikipedia ambassadors at JMU, the students gain an opportunity to write for a wide audience, in essence, the whole world, according to LiAnna Davis, communications associate for the Wikimedia Foundation’s Public Policy Initiative. The students gain immediate feedback from a large community of Wikipedia editors while learning to follow editorial policies. Each student is paired with a mentor to work with as they write the articles. Wikipedia editing has not only been found to improve students’ media literacy, but also to improve their understanding of scholarly citations, according to the Wikipedia Public Policy course description.

The Wikimedia Foundation Public Policy Initiative is allowing JMU students to incorporate what they are learning in the classroom not simply as a class project, but an experience of writing and editing Wikipedia entries for millions to read and research. “Instead of working solely on a project that only you and your professor see, the entire Wiki world is out there and can help you cite better sources, form better sentences, and overall just do a good job,” Jones said. “It is a great learning tool.” Alex Stinson agrees, “the students’ projects no longer get thrown away at the end of the semester but are being integrated into an ever-growing web resource.”

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