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ODU Students Get Unique Lesson in 'Collective Intelligence' Via Wikipedia Editing Assignment

In the academic community, the open-source information website Wikipedia has been viewed with skepticism, or far worse. But there's no denying its presence on the Internet. Search a topic via Google, and the Wikipedia entry about it is among the first results to appear.

It's that ubiquity that Kyle Nicholas, lecturer in Old Dominion University's Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, wanted to address in an assignment he presented to students in his New Media Technologies online course during the spring semester.

Instead of banning Wikipedia as a source, Nicholas gave the 38 students in his 300-level class the task of selecting a Wikipedia page and editing it for accuracy. He said his students were completely taken aback by what they found.

"I'm fascinated by it," Nicholas said of Wikipedia. "And for the students, it's probably the best example of 'collective intelligence' that I can expose them to."

Nicholas said his students, just at the beginning of developing their critical academic-thinking skills, were surprised by how many factual errors they came across in reviewing Wikipedia pages of interest to them - from their hometowns, to ODU pages, to interest pages as diverse as Bingo and dachshunds.

"One of the key lessons the students took from the assignment was, 'That was too easy to do,'" Nicholas said. "That tells them a few things. It helps them identify the cultural power that we all have. And it wrestles with the question of what is a 'fact.'

"And media literacy is as much about writing as about reading, so I wanted them to take an active role in editing the pages themselves, to see the corrections they submitted actually show up on Wikipedia."

The students also posted their own reflections about the assignments. They discussed Internet censorship, highlighted by the Jan. 18 shutdown of the Wikipedia website to protest anti-piracy bills in Congress, and questioned why their professors would take such a hard line with a website that provides such comprehensive information.

"I don't think Wikipedia is a good fit for people trying to produce precision in their research," Nicholas said. "But whatever teachers think about Wikipedia, the world at large spends a lot of time reading it and believing it."

In his New Media Technologies course, Nicholas discusses trends in the media landscape, and how newsgathering and the dissemination of information has changed at a rapid pace in the last decade. "I don't think there's a single assignment I gave this semester that we could have given 10 years ago," he said.