Skip to main content

A recent dust-up between Wikipedia and Canada's largest university raises questions about how collaborative the popular website that bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" truly is.

The online information portal recently took a professor from the University of Toronto to task for one of his classroom assignments.

Steve Joordens urged the 1,900 students in his introductory psychology class to start adding content to relevant Wikipedia pages. The assignment was voluntary, and Joordens hoped the process would both enhance Wikipedia's body of work on psychology while teaching students about the scientist's responsibility to share knowledge.

But Joordens's plan backfired when the relatively small contingent of volunteer editors that curate the website's content began sounding alarm bells. They raised concerns about the sheer number of contributions pouring in from people who were not necessarily well-versed in the topic or adept at citing their research.

Discussions in the Wikipedia community became very heated with allegations that articles were being updated with erroneous or plagiarized information. Some community members called for widespread bans on university IP addresses and decried the professor's assignment as a needless burden on the community.

Joordens issued a statement defending his students, saying only 33 of the 910 articles edited were tagged for potential problems.

But he also acknowledged that he did not understand the limited scope of the Wikipedia editorial community, which boasts a few thousand members compared to the more than 488 million people that visit the site every month.

"I assumed that the current core of editors was extremely large and that the introduction of up to 1000 new editors would be seen as a positive," Joordens said.

"However, the current core of editors turns out NOT to be that large, and even if my students were bringing signal along with noise, the noise was just too much to deal with on the scale it was happening."

Joordens said the Wikipedia community became "annoyed and frustrated," adding that things became heated to a point he found "somewhat ridiculous."

The animated discussion that's ensued from the incident highlights both the pros and cons of using social media in the classroom, experts said.

Sidneyeve Matrix, media professor at Queen's University, said crowdsourcing platforms like Wikipedia offer unparalleled opportunities for students to engage with their topics of study and to feel they're actively involved in the learning process.

But collaborative projects can't survive without leadership, she said, adding the zealous editors at Wikipedia have an important role to play as gatekeepers. This case, she said, exposes the difficult balancing act at play.

"I thought it was a lot more open than it is, but at the same time I'm seeing that more and more teachers are using it in their classrooms," she said. "The authenticity and verifiability of the information on the site has been improving, and that doesn't happen from the magic fairy. It happens from dedicated folks who are behind the scenes."

Jay Walsh, spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation that operates Wikipedia, said the online encyclopedia is working to carve out its niche in the classroom.

The website has established a pilot project that works closely with both teachers and students, he said, adding Joordens had some preliminary discussions with the company before carrying out his own plan.

He described the professor's approach as "experimental," emphasizing that editors need to follow certain protocols when contributing to articles. The strong reactions and speedy response of the Wikipedia community, he said, is the very mechanism that makes the site attractive to educators.

"This response is pretty high-value within the Wikipedia community," he said. "It's conceivable for someone to interpret that response as being too fast or not giving us a chance, but in this case there seems to be an openness towards figuring out ways to make this kind of an initiative work."

Joordens agreed, saying he will limit the number of students who take on such voluntary assignments in the future and make sure they're up to speed with the site's editing practices. In turn, he called for Wikipedia members to back down from their hardline position on fledgling contributors.

"Now that at least some members of the Wikipedia community are putting down their digital pitchforks, it is becoming more and more obvious to me that we all share the same goal of improving the quality and quantity of information on Wikipedia," he said. "If we could find ways of working together while also being respectful of one another, we could really do some great things."

Canadian Press