Thursday Thinkpiece: Kleefeld & Rattray on Editing Wikipedia for Law School Credit

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Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?

John C. Kleefeld, Associate Professor, College of Law, University of Saskatchewan and Katelyn Rattray, Articling Student, Race & Company LLP.

65 J Legal Educ 597 (2016) © Association of American Law Schools

Excerpt: from the Introduction and Parts I-III | [Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above]


Consider the fate of the average paper, memo or other written assignment submitted for law school credit. Whether the student has toiled over it through the term or crammed it into a few (one?) all-nighters before the due date, the work is likely to be read by the instructor who assigned it, filed in a cabinet, box, or electronic folder on a computer, assigned a grade (with,perhaps, some feedback given to the student), and then—forgotten. While some instructors prod students to turn their work into publishable pieces for a wider audience, most law school assignments are produced and consumed solely in a dyadic relationship of student-writer and instructor-reader. Now consider a different scenario, one in which the fate of the work is presumptive publication to the world; in which feedback from any interested reader is potentially instantaneous; in which the instructor’s role is that of coach or mentor through the writing and publishing process as well as assessor of the work; and in which the student’s work, in turn, contributes to providing worldwide access to free legal information. The world we are talking about is that of writing or editing Wikipedia articles for law school credit.

In this Article, we describe that world and the small part we played in it as law professor and law student in editing a Wikipedia article as an optional component of an upper-year Canadian law school course. In Part I, we set out some of the background to Wikipedia. This includes a discussion of its history, philosophy, and policies; the relationship between Wikipedia and higher education; and the relationship between Wikipedia and law, including its sometimes surprising use by courts and lawyers. We consider the views of Wikipedia’s detractors and proponents, and, in answer to both, make a pedagogical case for turning law students from “consumers” to “producers” of Wikipedia’s legal content. Furthermore, the pedagogical case has a public service component, similar to initiatives like that of the University of California San Francisco, where fourth-year medical students have been editing Wikipedia to provide higher-quality medical information for the benefit of both the public and the medical profession. In Part II, we talk about what we did as professor and student in the course, focusing on the editing of a specific Wikipedia “stub” article—that is, an article clearly in need of editing and further development. In Part III, we consider the assessment of student contributions to Wikipedia. This includes a discussion of various rubrics and the Wikipedia Education Project Syllabus, which provides a general template for a twelve-week course emphasizing individual and collaborative writing, peer review, and publication of Wikipedia content. Part IV summarizes our reflections on the exercise, including both its limitations and opportunities. Finally, in the Appendix, we provide some links to resources for professors and students who want to experiment with writing or editing Wikipedia articles for law school credit.

Part I: Background

Wikipedia and Higher Education

Wikipedia has played two primary roles in higher education, serving as both a learning tool and a source of information. As a public platform that anyone can edit, Wikipedia gives students the opportunity to learn through their contributions. Like a double-edged sword, however, the ability for anyone to contribute to Wikipedia articles has caused concern in academia regarding the accuracy, thoroughness, and objectivity of Wikipedia’s contributions and has led to debate over Wikipedia’s usefulness in higher education.

Instructors and academic institutions have responded to the rise of Wikipedia in diverse ways. Some, such as Middlebury College’s history department, have banned the citation of Wikipedia in academic projects. Others allow the use of Wikipedia with some restrictions. Meghan Sweeney, who taught a research-focused English composition course using Wikipedia, notes the hypocrisy of banning Wikipedia as a resource tool when many academics use it for their own preliminary research. She suggests that instructors instead use Wikipedia exercises to improve students’ information literacy, which can in turn help them understand the sources of information available on Wikipedia and make more critical decisions about the information they are consuming.

Similarly, reference librarian and fiction writer Jeff Maehre suggests that instructors should let students cite Wikipedia and assess the value of their citations based on the validity of the content rather than the validity of the source. After all, in many disciplines students are trained not only on how to understand information but also on how to seek it out and determine whether some sources are more or less compelling than others. As this debate plays out, educators like Sweeney and Maehre argue that when teachers embrace Wikipedia as a place for their students to contribute their knowledge, students can become more critical consumers of information and learn to use Wikipedia more effectively.

Though some instructors have independently adopted Wikipedia as a platform for developing class assignments, Wikimedia Foundation began promoting the idea in 2010 by introducing the Wikipedia Education Project (WEP). It seeks to encourage student contributions to Wikipedia by fostering Wikipedia’s use in coursework. The WEP has had a marked impact on the quality of the information available on Wikipedia: A 2012 Wikipedia study suggested that eighty-eight percent of the articles reviewed were improved to some extent by student edits.

The WEP offers resources to help instructors implement the program, including campus ambassadors who can provide hands-on Wikipedia training for instructors and students and a sample syllabus for a Wikipedia assignment. The program has gained a fan base: In four years, over 10,000 students have participated in the WEP by contributing to more than 10,000 Wikipedia articles in multiple languages. While Wikipedia benefits from student contributions, it may be that the students receive the greater benefit of developing useful research and writing skills. Today’s students rely heavily on electronic sources, and many are inclined to use Wikipedia at least for preliminary research. For instance, a 2012 study on student perceptions of Wikipedia found that 92% of respondents in a freshman course and 72% of respondents in an upper-year course at a large public university used Wikipedia as a research tool when writing academic papers. Furthermore, only 33% of respondents from the upper-year course said they would never cite to Wikipedia in an academic paper. After completing Wikipedia assignments in their courses, however, students’ perceptions of Wikipedia as a valid resource decreased. Based on the respondents’ feedback, the researchers found “that the experience of creating a Wikipedia topic entry opened [the students’] eyes to the processes continuously operating behind Wikipedia entries and … they realized that the quality of Web-based resources depends on the efforts of authors and editors.”

The 2012 study demonstrates how contributing to Wikipedia can develop students’ information literacy. Similarly, Sweeney found in her project that student contributions to Wikipedia “[were] successful in getting students to answer their own questions . . . [and gave] students an opportunity to compose in a multimedia environment, which ‘enhances notions of audience, purpose, genre, form, and context.’” Most students simply use the information they find online. However, when they are turned into producers of information by editing Wikipedia articles, they must take a critical eye to their sources and learn how to use online information effectively in order to avoid having their work flagged or deleted by Wikipedia’s online community. In essence, the exercise helps students develop their information literacy for the purposes of completing a successful project and, in turn, they become better consumers of information because they learn how to better evaluate the legitimacy of online sources.

Students may also develop a heightened awareness of audience and purpose as a benefit of completing Wikipedia projects. Students participating in one project became aware of the need to not only write for their audience but also to provide information that enriches articles and avoids unnecessary or redundant information. As Wikipedia articles appear in an encyclopedic context, unlike many university writing assignments that are created for one course, Wikipedia editors have an added responsibility of evaluating whether the information they wish to present on a page could better fit on another page or has already been covered by another editor. Furthermore, the exercise of editing a Wikipedia article often requires that editors balance and synthesize different voices, creating learning challenges and opportunities when striving for consistency in one’s writing. Perhaps most important, completing Wikipedia projects can empower students with the confidence to believe in and deem their work sufficiently rigorous for publication. James Purdy notes that Wikipedia and wikis ask us to “reexamine our expectations for the stability of research materials and who should participate in public knowledge making.” Sweeney also notes the value of placing students in an expert role: By perceiving themselves as “experts” on their selected topic (in her course, an aspect of youth subculture), students have the confidence to present their material to the public and potentially to engage in online discussions with other Wikipedia participants.

In more specialized fields, instructors have explored the benefit of training students to explain technical concepts in straightforward language. This exercise, in and of itself, appears to encourage more rigorous study of the material; because the project is publicly available, the information becomes more accessible. Perhaps the most ambitious endeavor in this regard is the Wiki Project Med Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose goal is “to provide the sum of all medical knowledge to all people in their own language.” Headed by Wikipedia enthusiast and University of British Columbia clinical professor James Heilman, Wiki Project Med is working to this goal by collaborating with various partners. These include Translators Without Borders and University of California San Francisco, where fourth year medical students have edited Wikipedia for credit in a one-month elective course over three academic cycles. Amin Azzam, associate clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine and course instructor, notes that “Wikipedia generates more than 53 million page views just for articles about medications each month, and is second to Google as the most frequently used source by junior physicians.” However, Azzam found that “there is a clear need to bring medicine articles up to par,” and so has focused on articles that are frequently visited but are of low quality for one reason or another. So far, Azzam’s students have edited twenty-eight such articles, resulting in improvements to most of them and significant improvements to several, as measured by Wikipedia’s own quality metrics. Another such project is the Association for Psychological Science’s APS Wikipedia Initiative. Over 3,300 psychological scientists and students have edited and rated Wikipedia articles to ensure that Wikipedia’s psychology articles are complete and accurate. As noted by the APS Wikipedia Initiative website, “When the general public searches for information about psychology, the top results are Wikipedia articles. . . . As psychological scientists, it’s your responsibility to ensure the psychology information on Wikipedia is reliable.”

How does this translate to law and legal education? There is relatively little academic discussion of using Wikipedia as a learning tool in legal education However, some insight is provided by Brian Carver, who assigned Wikipedia projects in two graduate-level law courses at University of California, Berkeley. In these courses—Cyberlaw and Intellectual Property Law for the Information Industries—Carver’s students reported a “higher degree of engagement with a Wikipedia assignment as compared with traditional writing assignments,” which contributed to earnest development of collaboration and information literacy skills that are invaluable for successful law practice. As the following section suggests, however, the legal community is ambivalent about Wikipedia as a citation-worthy resource. That ambivalence presents a hurdle to its acceptance in the law school curriculum. Let us turn, then, to consider Wikipedia’s role in law and its potential role in legal education.

Part II: What We Did

Incorporating Wikipedia into a course assignment was an experiment for both of us. Although we had some experience with editing or writing Wikipedia articles, we had none in the context of a course. Thus while we refer to ourselves as “instructor” and “student” here, the assignment was very much a learning experience for each of us. The course chosen for the experiment was an upper-year seminar titled Art of the Judgment. It focuses on “the history, development, reporting and practice of the judgment . . . from the earliest recorded judgments to the present.” Students judge a first-year moot and are typically assessed through a written judgment on that moot, submitted about halfway through the course. This counts for 30% of the grade. In-class activities and participation count for a further 30%. At the end of the course, students typically submit papers for 40% of the grade. In the 2014-2015 version of the course, the instructor gave students the option of editing or writing a Wikipedia article or series of articles as a way of fulfilling the paper requirement. Students received a list of hyperlinks to Wikipedia stub articles related to judging, judgments, or the judiciary, and could select one of the articles listed or choose their own article and have it approved for credit.

One student—co-author of this Article—opted for the “wiki” mode of assessment and picked “Judgment (law)” as the article to edit. She got to work by first creating a Wikipedia user account, a course requirement for this mode of assessment. She focused first on becoming more familiar with the Wikipedia editing process. For that, Wikipedia’s tutorial was especially helpful on editing, formatting, and citing sources; it is probably the best starting point for anyone venturing to edit Wikipedia. The student also added the article to her “watchlist” so she would know if other users changed it. After the student became comfortable with the process but before beginning editing, she copied the article, as it appeared on Wikipedia, into a Microsoft Word document for later reference and comparison.

After completing these preliminary steps, the real fun (and learning) began! The student reviewed the article and determined what needed to be added or changed. A previous Wikipedian had marked the article for “globalization,” meaning that it did not adequately reflect a worldwide view of the topic in question. Furthermore, the article had very little information given the breadth of the subject, and its subsections were not cohesively connected. Finally, the article referenced a number of dubious sources, including inactive links and sources that did not seem to support the statements that the article claimed they supported. These issues were noted in the first meeting between student and instructor.

After the initial discussions regarding the current state of the article, the student worked on the assignment independently over the course of the semester while meeting occasionally with the instructor and seeking advice when required. When she completed a draft, the student and instructor reviewed it together and discussed any remaining technical and substantive issues that needed to be addressed. After saving the edited version of the article in Wikipedia, the student “submitted” her work by saving the Web page as it appeared after making the final edits. Subsequently, both the student and instructor made some further minor edits—readers should be forewarned that getting involved in a Wikipedia article is rather addictive!

Part III: Assessing Student Contributions to Wikipedia

Assessment in our case was a matter of first impression and, admittedly, somewhat ad hoc. Much of the work that was done on the chosen article involved rewriting definitions, adding extensive references, and adding hyperlinks to related articles. The topic was broad enough to merit examples from various legal systems; accordingly, the student provided examples from common law, civil law, and religious law. Both student and instructor were happy with the improvements, while recognizing that more work could be done on the article. As with the expansiveness of Wikipedia itself, there are many ways to assess student Wikipedia projects. An obvious choice would be to use Wikipedia’s own indicators of a solid article by considering how students’ work—edits or new articles—compares with Wikipedia’s requirements for good articles and feature articles. This is one of the indicators used in the UCSF study, where seven of the twenty-eight medical articles edited went from “start” or “C-class” to “B-class,” indicating signifi cant improvement.

Some instructors have developed their own grading rubrics for Wikipedia articles. Sweeney, for instance, opted to evaluate how much the article contributed to conversation, awareness of audience, validity, and integration of sources, and “online ethics.” Purdy, by contrast, used what could be described as a more technical rubric. He considered what information had been added or removed, what content was edited, how the content was organized, and how the students used hyperlinks. The WEP Syllabus, which outlines a twelve-week course with exercises of increasing sophistication and peer review by classmates, suggests a grading structure weighted as follows: (i) 20% for four early Wikipedia exercises (5% each), such as playing in Wikipedia’s “sandbox”; (ii) 10% for participating in class blogs or discussions; (iii) 10% for peer reviews and collaboration with classmates, typically through an article’s Talk page; (iv) 50% for the main Wikipedia article contributions; and (v) 10% for a reflective essay. A recent study on visual representation of Wikipedia collaborations, and early development of open-source software called Vis-à-Wik, also suggest new means of assessing information on Wikipedia, such as the use of visual analytics to map an article’s structural connection to other articles. Vis-à-Wik, though currently only in “alpha” stage, could help in visualizing how a student has edited or linked the article to other Wikipedia articles Additional questions for assessment could include asking whether the student used the “major/minor change feature” and sufficiently explained edits, and the extent to which the student successfully “globalized” the article, where appropriate. Ultimately, each project will have its own learning goals, so instructors will want to consider their own most relevant factors when assessing how closely their students’ work has met those goals.

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