[Cross-posted from the OU History of Science Collections blog. A few minor changes have been made to update the information in the article.]

Galileo’s signature on the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collection’s copy of the Sidereus Nuncius serves as the banner for this blog. If you would like to know more about this landmark book, I encourage you to look it up on Wikipedia or Google it, which amounts to the same thing. It may surprise you to find out that the article you will read (Sidereus nuncius) is largely the work of OU astrophysics senior Jodi Berdis.

In my four History of Science to the Age of Newton courses this past year, I asked Jodi and her classmates to identify Wikipedia articles related to the history of science that needed improvement and to revise them. They edited a diverse array of articles including biographies ranging from the Greek philosopher Cleostratus to the 17th century German female astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart. The students also updated articles on Iatrochemistry, Psychology in medieval Islam, and Kampo, a Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine. By working with Wikipedia to publish their descriptive research essays, the students shared what they learned in my class with a worldwide audience.

My class was the first at the University of Oklahoma to use Wikipedia’s Education Program package. Despite its capabilities for knowledge creation and sharing, Wikipedia has been met with ambivalence from many professors. The articles lack the forms of authorship and peer-review standardized by academic journals and presses. As a reference tool, the articles can lack the context and sophistication of an academic text. Misuse by students is also a concern. In a particularly infamous case from 2006, sixteen students in one University of Oklahoma history of science class plagiarized material for the final exam, nine of them copying sections from Wikipedia (OU Daily).

In response to this 2006 case, Assistant Provost Greg Heiser said, “I think that since the beginning of the Internet as a research tool, we have seen a dilution of the idea of what writing should be” (OU Daily). However the lecturer in the 2006 case took an alternative lesson from the episode. “‘The university needs to do more formally to teach its students about information literacy,’ said Katherine Tredwell” (OU Daily).

As with the media revolution sparked by the printing press, the internet has diversified the “idea of what writing should be.” My approach to teaching writing across the curriculum is to move beyond the rigid academic paper to include an element of media literacy. Students tweet and text and read the internet more than newspapers or academic monographs, so I want my course to contribute to what the Center for Media Literacy calls a “framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet.”

In their case studies from former classes, Wikipedia notes five learning objectives common to their course assignments:

  1. Writing skills development;
  2. Critical thinking and research skills;
  3. Collaboration
  4. Media literacy; and
  5. Wiki technical and communication skills.

The first two learning objectives mirror those for any descriptive essay, but the last three provide the argument for the pedagogical value of a Wikipedia assignment.

In my class, students collaborated both with each other and with the broader community of Wikipedia editors. One student made a minor edit to the article on Newton, only to have it deleted in less than six hours. However, using the talk board for the article, the student and the other editor discussed the changes and agreed upon a revised version of the student’s information (related to Newton’s aether theory) and a detailed citation. Watching the student take ownership over his research and collaborate with someone completely unrelated to the class confirmed my hopes for the project and provided the class with a valuable learning experience about the expectations of the Wikipedia community.

Publication to a worldwide audience also has obvious advantages over the traditional term paper and its audience of one. Collaboration and exposure provided an external motivation for students to produce an article that they could be proud of. Jodi’s article on Sidereus Nuncius has received more than two thousand page views a month (stats). This article, as an exercise in knowledge creation in the classroom and knowledge sharing beyond it, offered a potential self-efficacy unrivaled by more traditional college writings.

In evaluating the quality of existing articles and actively making edits, students learned to analyze the production and consumption of knowledge. Learning the language of Wikipedia demystified the coding of a particular website and at the same time provided insight into the authority of online information. In participating in an edited encyclopedia project and researching with more traditional secondary sources, the students utilized multiple forms of media. This active engagement with academic publications, an edited online encyclopedia, and unedited online sources is invaluable for media literacy, an essential skill that our students must learn as they make their way through the height of the Internet Age.