Source: Science Photo Library
The opportunities and challenges of integrating Wikipedia into higher education formed a central strand of the tenth annual Wikimania conference, which heard how academics and students are using and improving the collaboratively edited online resource.
The conference, held at London’s Barbican Centre last week and kicked off by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, heard from Shani Evenstein, who works at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. She described Wiki-Med as “the first full academic Wikipedia course in Israel”, and probably the world.
Last summer, when a colleague asked her to design a new credit-bearing elective course, she came up with one that would teach students the “skills to create new and improved medical-related articles” on Wikipedia’s Hebrew-language site.
In the event, the course was greatly oversubscribed, with 62 students completing the 14-week programme. The main assignments were “expanding a stub” (a short article providing only rudimentary information) and writing an article. The course attracted 37 medics and 22 students of dentistry as well as a doctoral candidate, an academic and an administrator. The gender balance was 25 women to 37 men, a higher proportion of women than is usual on Wikipedia, with 30 people who had Hebrew as first language, 29 Arabic and three Russian.
The direct results were 64 new articles for Hebrew Wikipedia, including one for “mitral valve replacement”, and 64 stubs such as “birth mark” and “metastasis” developed into full articles.
In addition, some of the Arabic speakers on the course decided to contribute to Arabic Wikipedia or to set up editing workshops in their own towns. Ms Evenstein hopes that Wiki-Med can serve as a model for “similar elective courses as part of any BA programme all over the world”.
Martin Poulter, website editor and technical developer at the University of Bristol, noted that academic psychologists, for example, had only themselves to blame if they believed there was too much pop psychology on Wikipedia.
Many articles are now improved by students, although this “goes on under the radar and doesn’t get noticed”, he said.
Another speaker, James Heilman – “a small-town emergency room physician” who is also a clinical instructor at the University of British Columbia – recalled the first time he read a poor-quality medical article on Wikipedia, spotted the edit button and realised that he “could fix the internet”.
Today, he noted, 93 per cent of medical students use Wikipedia, and it has also become the major source of information for junior doctors.
Although the average American sees a doctor for a total of just 60 minutes each year, he or she also spends 52 hours looking at health information on the internet, Dr Heilman said.
For anyone who cares about healthcare, “fixing the internet” was now one of their critical tasks, he argued.