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LSU's Communication across the Curriculum Joins with Wikimedia Foundation to Incorporate Wikipedia in Classrooms

When looking at the popular information website Wikipedia, one can see that numerous contributors add reference content to respective entries.

Shades of Grey
LSU Landscape Architecture Professor Bruce Sharky, left, said he decided to incorporate Wikipedia into his graduate-level class after a presentation on campus by representatives from the Wikimedia Foundation. Sharky's students created graphics to aid Wikipedia entries on coastal restoration issues.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

With the help of LSU’s Communication across the Curriculum program, or CxC, LSU students will soon be among those contributors, as work they conduct in their classes will help to support entries in the multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project.

CxC has partnered with the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia and other projects, to help universities incorporate Wikipedia into classrooms around the world through the foundation’s Wikipedia Ambassador Program. LSU is one of 25 universities to take part in the program.

“CxC’s mission is to help students develop strong writing, speaking, visual and technological communication skills,” CxC Assistant Director Rebecca Burdette said. “Immediately, we recognized the possibilities for using Wikipedia as a fun and effective way to help students improve their writing and technological communication skills.”            

Initially as part of the Wikimedia’s Public Policy Initiative, the Wikipedia Ambassador Program is an effort to help new Wikipedia users and reach out to new potential contributors – particularly professors who want to incorporate Wikipedia into the classroom and their students who are assigned to edit Wikipedia.            

“As CxC staff members, our role is to support faculty in integrating communication-intensive activities within their courses and to help students excel through these communication-based assignments,” Burdette said. “As Wikipedia ambassadors, our role is to support faculty and students using Wikipedia for teaching and learning. The connection for us was obvious, and we have since adopted Wikipedia as yet another valuable communication-intensive teaching and learning tool in our toolbox.”

Support system

One class at LSU that has incorporated contributing to Wikipedia is Professor Bruce Sharky’s graduate-level landscape design class in LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. The students, as part of a semester-long project, created original graphics concerning coastal restoration issues in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and uploaded the graphics to support related listings on Wikipedia. Sharky’s students created visuals on topics ranging from cloud seeding to coastal change to water salinity and more.

“The students were each assigned a natural phenomenon to research,” Sharky said. “Part of the assignment was to develop a diagram or some kind of image that could better explain what is in writing on a Wikipedia page.”

When the students completed their images, a Wikipedia discussion page was created to house the files, Burdette said. On the page, members of the Wikipedia community were able to comment on the students’ work and provide helpful advice on how to make their submissions as user-friendly as possible. After receiving feedback and making any necessary edits to their designs, the students then moved their images from the discussion page to their respective article topic pages on Wikipedia for public comment.

“We get a lot of feedback internally here,” said graduate student Devon Boutte of Lafayette. “It’s nice to get outside sets of eyes from people who aren’t involved in the program to give us feedback. This work that we’re doing is going to be seen by the public, so we need input from the public. This is a great forum.”

Sharky said that he got the idea to incorporate Wikipedia into his class after hearing a presentation by representatives from the Wikimedia Foundation last year.

“I got real excited with their presentation,” Sharky said. “I thought there must be some way that landscape architecture students could get involved with this. I talked with (Wikimedia Foundation Team Coordinator) Annie Lin afterward, and she said that their grant was for political science work. But, she also said that I had a really good idea.”

Sharky's students were assisted by LSU's Communication across the Curriculum program, or CxC, in connecting with the Wikipedia community. CxC recently partnered with the Wikimedia Foundation to help universities incorporate Wikipedia into classrooms through the foundation's Wikipedia Ambassador Program. LSU is one of 25 universities to take part in the program.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

“Professor Sharky’s class is unique in that he has opted to focus on image contributions, rather than text contributions,” said Burdette, who assisted the students in posting their graphics onto Wikipedia sites. “As far as we know, there are no other professors in the U.S. using Wikipedia in this manner. But it is exciting. Teaching students the science of visual communication is just as important as writing.”

Burdette said she feels the most valuable and unique aspect to incorporating Wikipedia in the classroom is its collaborative community.

“When students write a paper or create an informational graphic, they typically turn it into the professor, and at best, they will receive good feedback,” she said. “They may even participate in a formal peer review session with their classmates. But when they upload their work to Wikipedia, they are getting feedback from folks all over the world. This exposes students to a level of feedback unheard of in traditional assignments, creating a wealth of opportunity for learning and growth.

“Additionally, it enables students to interact with people across the world and instantly showcase their work and skills. Who knows? The person critiquing their work on Wikipedia might just be the student’s connection to their first job or their first research assistantship. Or, it might be that the image the student created and posted to Wikipedia is picked up with their byline by Discovery Channel for a special on coastal erosion.”

While Sharky’s class is one of the first at LSU to incorporate Wikipedia into the classroom, it will not be the last, as CxC is looking to utilize the practice in more classes.

“We are currently supporting a couple of public policy courses – Bob Mann’s Advanced Seminar in Political Communication class and Ray Castle’s Habituating and Addictive Drugs in Our Culture class,” Burdette said. “But now that CxC’s staff is trained, we can support courses in every discipline, including Bruce Sharky’s course.”

Sharky said he felt that the incorporation of Wikipedia in the project helped bring more of a “real world” aspect to the students’ designs.

“We do a lot of service learning projects in the Reich School,” Sharky said. “With these graphics, the students are a lot more motivated about what they’re doing because they realize they are making a contribution to the global community. That’s very powerful.

A community of information

Wikimedia’s efforts to reach into the college classroom initiated through a grant the foundation received to focus on improving public policy-related content on Wikipedia.            

“Through this grant, they were able to commit training resources to develop campus ambassadors across the county,” Burdette said. “Wikimedia trains campus ambassadors in three major areas: understanding the technical aspects of Wikipedia, best practices for teaching and learning with Wikipedia, and supporting student contributors with article development and adjusting to the Wikipedia community culture.”

CxC learned of the Wikimedia Foundation project through an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Burdette said.

“There was initial skepticism about working with Wikipedia because the site is often condemned in academia for being inaccurate or not citing sources of information,” she said.

However, after talking with Wikimedia Foundation representatives, Burdette said, “we quickly realized just how uninformed we were about the world’s fifth-most visited website.”

“For example, the Wikipedia community’s ‘golden rule’ is that every line of text be cited,” she said. “Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but to set such high standards above and beyond what we employ in academia is worth a nod. Also, there is protocol for accuracy. If you blatantly post misinformation and continue to abuse Wikipedia, the community will quickly address the manner.”

Peter Summerlin, a graduate student in LSU's Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, explains to his classmates how the feedback he received from members of the Wikipedia community helped him to refine his graphic depicting water salinity levels.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

Wikipedia is an encyclopedic tertiary resource, Burdette said, meaning that everything should be factual and cited.

“This is a valuable platform on which to teach our students good writing and research skills,” she said. “As the researcher, students must follow the sources and validate them just like you would do with any literature. As the contributor, students must learn the art of critical analysis, writing, and documenting their work. Wikipedia is a publicly moderated community, yes, but that’s the value in it – bringing together creditable, citable knowledge from across the globe into one, easy-to-access place.”

When LSU contacted the Wikimedia Foundation about their efforts, Burdette said, the group was then working primarily with small, private institutions including George Washington University, Harvard University and George Mason University.

“The foundation was excited about our inquiry and even more thrilled to work with a large, top-tier public university,” she said.

The Wikipedia Ambassador Program consists of two groups, campus ambassadors and online ambassadors, who work together to support the classes.

Campus ambassadors serve as local representatives of the Wikipedia community on college and university campuses. These volunteers provide face-to-face support to university students on how to edit Wikipedia, work with professors to incorporate Wikipedia assignments into classrooms, help recruit new Wikipedia contributors on campus and participate in real life activities in support of free knowledge. Campus ambassadors are part of the Wikipedia Ambassador Program being piloted through the Public Policy Initiative. The estimated time commitment is approximately 3-5 hours a week, with some variations throughout the semester. Wikipedia campus ambassadors can be undergraduate students, graduate students, university staff members, faculty members or anyone geographically close to the university.

Online ambassadors serve as mentors, advisors and helpers to the professors and students who are incorporating Wikipedia into the classroom. Their role is to help newcomers to understand the specific culture of Wikipedia and guide them through their first 100 edits. Wikipedians from around the globe are invited to apply to become an online ambassador.

LSU hosted the south-central regional Wikipedia campus ambassador training in January, Burdette said. At this two-day session, Wikipedia representatives trained four CxC staff members, one undergraduate student who works as a peer mentor in CxC’s Studio 151, one Faculty Technology Center staff member, one graduate student in the College of Science and two LSU faculty members. In addition to the LSU trainees, there were four others from universities across the South.

“We’re creating a global university program to work with professors who want to assign their students to contribute to Wikipedia as part of their coursework,” said LiAnna Davis, communications associate for the Wikimedia Foundation. “We’re really excited about our partnership with LSU’s Communication across the Curriculum group, as we think it will be an exceptional way of bringing Wikipedia into LSU classes. Contributions to Wikipedia are a great way to give students a global audience for the work they do in college.”

Those interested in the Wikipedia Ambassador Program can sign up by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Campus_Ambassadors, or by contacting Campus Team Coordinator Annie Lin at alin@wikimedia.org.

As the first program of its kind in the nation, Communication across the Curriculum works with LSU faculty to train, guide and recognize students who demonstrate exceptional communication skills. CxC is focused on enhancing learning experiences for students and improving their written, spoken, visual presentation and technological communication skills within the disciplines. CxC offers faculty development workshops and curricula design resources to faculty who incorporate communication-intensive components to their courses; operates communication studios that support students working on communication-based projects; and honors students who excel in communication via the LSU Distinguished Communicator certification program.

To learn more about Communication across the Curriculum, visit http://cxc.lsu.edu.

LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture is consistently among the top rated landscape architecture schools in the United States. The school’s undergraduate program currently ranks as the best in the nation and its graduate program ranks second, according to leading design profession journal DesignIntelligence.

For more information on LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, visit www.landscape.lsu.edu.