15 January 2009

VCUQatar Students update Qatar article on Wikipedia

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar updated and revised the Wikipedia article on Qatar as an-end-of-term project for their freshman writing class, Focused Inquiry, last December. This new English course for the university focuses on enhancing a set of skills related to critical thinking, information literacy and social and civic responsibility.

The project was the result of a collaboration between Jesse Ulmer, Assistant Professor of English, and Nancy Fawley, Reference Librarian.  Part of the innovativeness of the new Focused Inquiry course is that it seeks full integration with library instruction in order 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,” said Ulmer, “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.”  This aspect of the assignment, in particular, helps students to realize how ethical and social responsibility is linked to the creation and use of public knowledge or information. Focused Inquiry student Yang Soon Ju agreed, stating, “We must be very skeptical. It seems a necessary attitude in order for us to effectively filter information these days, to help make our research more credible when shared with others.”  

To start, 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.  “Some of the revisions were more complicated than they seemed at first,” said Ulmer.  “For instance, while researching Qatar’s per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they discovered the country was ranked differently depending on which organization produced the rankings because of the variations in the way the statistics were calculated.”

Another area that the students felt needed revision was the question of which Gulf country was the first to grant women the right to vote.  The students discovered a wide range of contradictory answers. Depending on the source, the first country in the region to grant women the right to vote was Kuwait, Bahrain or Qatar. The question became even more complicated when the students discovered that a subtle but often unstated distinction was present between female participation in municipal versus parliamentary elections. The class quickly grasped that what amounted to a fairly simple question was actually quite complex and that the answer, contrary to initial expectations, was difficult to locate.  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.  Freshman Lowla Al-Khater remarked, “As a Qatari I’m always keen to raise the name of Qatar by ensuring that people receive accurate and reliable information. The Wikipedia entry on Qatar serves as a welcoming gesture to the country, so all the information should be accurate and current in order to avoid misleading readers worldwide.” Updating information on Qatar, a country where many have been born and raised, gave them the satisfaction of providing a more accurate and clearer picture of their home or host country.  

Unfortunately, part of learning about Wikipedia is realizing that all the hard work that they put into revising the site can be undone at any moment by anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection.  “Even within the short period of this project,” said Ulmer, “many bits of information in the article changed, almost on a daily basis.”

“For better or for worse, Wikipedia is here to stay,” said Fawley. “We can simply tell the students not to use it or we can use it as an educational tool and turn it into a learning experience as we did with this class project.”

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