Students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar recently updated and revised the Wikipedia article on Qatar as a project for their freshman writing class, Focused Inquiry. This new English course focuses on enhancing skills related to critical thinking, information literacy and social and civic responsibility.
Jesse Ulmer, Assistant Professor of English, and Nancy Fawley, Reference Librarian, collaborated for the project. The course seeks full integration with library instruction to help strengthen skills related to information fluency, an important component in the development of a knowledge-based society in Qatar.
Often-maligned but immensely popular, Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can update. “The problem with Wikipedia is that since anyone can write and edit an article, they may or may not be adding factual and objective information,” said Fawley. “You also have no way of gauging if the writer is an authority on a subject because Wikipedia recommends that you do not use your real name when setting up an account to edit it, so most use an alias.” Ulmer and Fawley did not follow that advice and created an account that included their names plus an explanation of the class project.
“One of the benefits of this project is that rather than assigning an essay that will likely be read by no more than a handful of people, the changes students are making to Wikipedia will be read by people all over the world. The students are held accountable to a global audience for what they are doing, and thus feel more invested and devoted to the assignment as a whole,” said Ulmer. This aspect of the assignment, in particular, helps students to realise how ethical and social responsibility is linked to the creation and use of public knowledge or information.
The students read the “Qatar” entry and highlighted areas that they believed were inaccurate or incorrect and needed revision. Then they began thoroughly researching these areas in order to further define the nature of the revision and to provide well-documented support for the change itself.
This process gave students valuable insight into not only the many unresolved questions revolving around open-source sites like Wikipedia, but also into the complex, highly contestable and often unstable nature of information.
The project has strengthened the students’ ability to think critically and evaluate sources as well as contribute to the region.
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