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Professors Shore Up Wikipedia Entries on Public Policy

Wikipedia, the user-written encyclopedia, has a shortage of public-policy articles, so it is getting help from nine universities to solve the problem. The Public Policy Initiative of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that operates the online reference work, is running a pilot program during the 2010-11 academic year, asking public-policy professors to require active student participation on the site as a part of their courses.

Professors at these institutions have already heeded the call for help: Georgetown University, George Mason University, George Washington University, Harvard University, Indiana University at Bloomington, Lehigh University, Syracuse University, University of California at Berkeley and Hofstra University.

These professors teach 11 relevant courses, and their students will write and contribute new public-policy articles to Wikipedia, as well as edit existing information. In exchange, Wikipedia Ambassadors, mentors affiliated with the company, will help both students and professors learn how to navigate and utilize the site.

Ironically, professors have long frowned on Wikipedia as an unreliable information source for their students, but now several are signing up their students to contribute. Brian Carver, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, says he is involved because the site can add new information to the public domain. For instance, he encouraged a student to write an article about a portion of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act dealing with disclosures required by third-party service providers in Internet privacy cases, because he saw that the section of the act had been cited in Wikipedia but did not have a full entry devoted to it.

He said he is hopeful that his students’ contributions will improve the quality and accuracy of entries related to public-policy topics.

Another participant, Donna Lind Infeld, director of the master’s of public policy program at George Washington University, says Wikipedia can be a valuable learning tool.

“It’s a way for students to try out their ideas in a larger audience besides me grading the paper, and follow the feedback,” said Ms. Lind Infeld, who is using the initiative in her policy analysis class. “It truly tests their ability to argue complex issues articulately in the public domain, as well teaching them how to be critical consumers of information.”

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