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An activist approach to Wikipedia inspires student engagement


When Emily Carr University of Art and Design professor Charles Dobson made a one-line entry in Wikipedia in 2010, he was surprised by the reaction. He’d merely noted that Emily Carr was the first school in North America to make a course on sustainability a requirement for all design majors. Eight days later both U.S. and Canadian media were phoning about the course, looking for someone to interview.

Faculty have long complained about students using Wikipedia as a primary source of information, but reporters increasingly depend on it because of reduced news budgets and lead times. What surprised Professor Dobson was that such a small entry had stirred up such a large response. He then realized he’d stumbled on a way to make the work of students matter in the real world. If even a small fraction of students wrote Wikipedia entries as part of a course requirement, their efforts could affect public discourse on a broad range of issues.

Every year, Professor Dobson tried to create an engaging project for his sociology for design course. He knew students responded better to real-world projects – especially environmental ones –than to hypothetical projects. The environmental issue that loomed larger than anything else was global warming. Students see it as a real threat that casts a dark pall on their futures.

Still, climate change is a challenging topic. Like everyone, students felt that its scale and complexity exceeded their abilities to do anything about it. So he proposed that students fill Wikipedia with content focused on what could be done to make real progress on the issue of global warming.

Professor Dobson began the project by asking the 18 students in the class to identify the latest published material on climate change, then to compare this to current Wikipedia entries. Students discovered that Wikipedia entries were often inadequate: some were too technical, many were outdated, others omitted important information. For example the entry on deforestation – a leading contributor to global warming – mentioned climate change, but didn’t include attempts to reduce deforestation or address global warming through tree planting. On discovering this, two students took on the task of putting up a new page on deforestation and climate change, detailing the influence of one on the other, as well as attempts by countries like China to address climate change through large-scale tree planting.

Another example: Wikipedia had a page on the environmental impact of meat production, but it overlooked the enormous amounts of methane produced by beef and dairy cattle, which his students were able to address. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency beef and dairy cattle are responsible for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making them the third-largest contributor of global greenhouse gases. None of this was on Wikipedia.

Often students were able to make difficult material more understandable. Most students made small edits where they couldn’t understand something, but some made much larger edits. One student read and summarized an important but long-winded book on global environmental governance that few people were likely to read. Others created explanatory diagrams for entries that were almost entirely text.

The project encountered some minor problems. Wikipedia content has to be coded properly, an initial headache, but one most students quickly overcame. Students also had to respect Wikipedia’s basic requirements for neutral language and credible citations. Content that ignores these protocols is usually reverted to its original by numerous citizen-editors. Students also needed a username and password so they could log in, track their edits, and participate in discussions of edits.

A sure sign of student enthusiasm was their early arrival for class. Students recognized this little project might really matter beyond the classroom. The resulting uploads on the project due date were so numerous (upwards of 600 edits in one day) that Wikipedia assumed it was under attack and blocked Emily Carr’s IP address for three days.

Professor Dobson ran the project again in 2015, this time focusing on numerous new attempts to introduce carbon taxes, the impact of the beef and dairy industry, and the economic case for action laid out in the 2014 New Climate Economy Report. This time students made additions to Wikipedia in other languages; a Brazilian student added material in Portuguese on the importance of the Amazon as a huge carbon sink. A Chinese student put a hyperlinked version of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report onto Baidu, which provides the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia.

Professor Dobson, who is also the editor of the online Citizen’s Handbook, believes universities can address a wide range of issues by asking students to see what is available on Wikipedia, then helping them to fill in the gaps. While just about everyone relies on Wikipedia as a source of knowledge, relatively few people contribute. “If universities took on the task of ensuring a complete, accurate, and up-to-date Wikipedia, it would be a truly great resource,” says Dobson. Thus, universities could take on a new role of ensuring that people everywhere have access to essential knowledge.

Associate professor Alexandra Phillips teaches visual art and critical studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

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