Some academics cringe when students turn to Wikipedia as a reference for term papers.
University of Washington-Bothell professor Martha Groom has more of an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" response to the online encyclopedia that anyone can write or edit.
Instead of asking students in her environmental history course to turn in one big paper at the end of the semester, she requires them either to write an original Wikipedia article or to do a major edit on an existing one.
The inspiration came to her as she prepared teaching materials for her class.
"I would find these things on Wikipedia," she said, and would think, "Gosh, this is awfully thin here. I wonder if my students could fill this in?"
Wikipedia has been vilified as a petri dish for misinformation, and the variable accuracy of its articles is a point Groom readily concedes. Since the advent of the Web, she said, the quality of sources students cite has deteriorated.
For her students, the Wikipedia experiment was "transformative," and students' writing online proved better than the average undergrad research paper.
Knowing their work was headed for the Web, not just one harried professor's eyes, helped students reach higher — as did the standards set by the volunteer "Wikipedians" who police entries for accuracy and neutral tone, Groom said.
The exercise also gave students a taste of working in the real world of peer-reviewed research.
Most of the articles were well received, but Groom said some students caught heat from Wikipedia editors for doing exactly what college students are trained to do: write an argumentative, critical essay.
"Some people were a little rude," she said of the anonymous Wikipedia editors. Ultimately, she had to teach the students the difference between good secondary research and the average college paper.
"You don't get to say that last little bit on, 'This is why this is the truth and the way,'" she said.