A breast cancer survivor caring for a husband who has an inoperable brain tumor selected “patient centered outcomes” as the topic she will research and write about for Wikipedia in Chris Cooper’s graduate-level policy analysis course. Meanwhile, another student in the course debated between 3-D printing copyright issues and medical amnesty before settling on “post-detection policy” – procedures centered on how to respond in the event of contact with intelligent alien life. “It isn’t exactly the most pertinent issue when it comes to contemporary policy debates, but if it were to happen, you can bet that about 6 billion people would want to know NASA’s policy pretty quickly,” said Billy Schweig, a student in WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs.
Western Carolina University is one of 21 universities stretching from Harvard to Texas Southern to Berkeley selected to participate this spring in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Public Policy Initiative. Wikimedia, a nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” received a grant from the Stanton Foundation to work with institutions of higher education to have students improve the quality of public policy articles on Wikipedia. Essentially, students author a Wikipedia article on a public policy topic while working with experienced Wikipedians who guide them in citing only reliable sources such as scholarly articles or books and writing in an encyclopedic tone.
Students who participated last semester became so engaged that they said it was the first time they shared one of their college papers with their parents, said LiAnna Davis, a communications associate with the Public Policy Wikimedia Foundation. Several also continued to keep their articles up-to-date after the course, Davis said. One, for instance, has been updating the article he prepared about the National Democratic Party of Egypt as current events have turned global attention to the country, she said.
Cooper, associate professor of political science and public affairs and director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, contacted Wikimedia about possible participation, and the spring “Policy Analysis” graduate course he teaches was chosen for inclusion. Students in the course learn to understand, analyze and communicate public policy and strategy, and incorporating the Wikipedia project offered a hands-on way to communicate about policy with the broader public, said Cooper. “Also, when students post something on Wikipedia, people will respond. The students have to defend their position and craft their case in a way that is true, honest and palatable to readers on Wikipedia,” he said. “It ends up being a laboratory for democratic debate.”
Frank Schulenburg, head of public outreach for the Wikimedia Foundation, said he was excited to have Western Carolina University on board. “We look forward to seeing how Professor Cooper’s public policy students contribute to freely shared knowledge for the world by writing content on Wikipedia,” said Schulenburg.
Supporting this semester’s Wikimedia Foundation Public Policy Project participants are a range of Wikipedia experts, including 62 online ambassadors and 51 campus ambassadors, one of whom is Laura Cruz, interim director of the WCU Coulter Faculty Commons. Cruz edited her first Wikipedia article six years ago when she was frustrated to see inaccurate information on a topic in her area of research, early European history. “It was so easy, and I felt empowered,” said Cruz of the realization that she was part of the “everyone” who could edit and post information on Wikipedia. “Detractors think it’s the biggest weakness, but I think it’s the biggest strength.”
For her, Wikipedia has been a tool to help her link concepts she is teaching to pop culture by noting where it may have popped up in a “South Park” episode, movie, song or video game. “To tie a particular topic to popular culture, Wikipedia has been pretty invaluable,” said Cruz. The whole concept also resonates with her on an academic level. “A lot of my research deals with emergent phenomenon – things that don’t come form top-down but emerge from the practices of many, many people, and that’s the basis for Wikipedia,” said Cruz.
She is currently working with Cooper’s students as the Wikipedia expert, while Cooper serves as the content expert. Several said the project already has changed the way they think about and value Wikipedia as source of information for public policy.
MPA student Kasey Baker said he has often gone to Wikipedia for background information before researching a topic and has edited pages in the past on topics from U.S. nuclear legislation to Obama’s 2011 fiscal year budget. “Wikipedia is a huge factor in what people know about public policy and legislation,” said Baker. “Often other sites are cumbersome to read, and do not give a full and accessible overview of a policy or legislation. Moreover, most of these public policy or legislation Wiki pages are regularly kept up with and the information is usually quite accurate.”
Meanwhile, Schweig said he had not touched the edit button since authoring an article about the Living Learning Center Edible Schoolyard, an educational garden initiative at Appalachian State University. “I created an article and saw it promptly deleted for lacking universal interest, so I hadn’t touched the ‘edit’ button in five years before Dr. Cooper’s course,” said Schweig. “Although I’ve always considered Wikipedia a very powerful and public facet of what’s now known as the free culture movement, for some reason I’d never considered its influence on public policy. Like it or not, the layman’s and the expert’s discourse alike draw heavily from online sources like Wikipedia. I think it’s pretty forward-thinking of our program to not only acknowledge that, but also to join efforts like the Wikimedia Policy Project that seek to improve everyone’s access to good information.”
For Anne Cortes, the Wikipedia project has offered her a way to explore the topic that inspired her to seek her MPA. “Our family has been financially, physically and emotionally devastated as a result of medical error and our medical nonsystem,” said Cortes, who is pursuing her MPA with a focus on health policy. “Before this course, I didn’t consider Wikipedia a reliable source,” she said. “I think the greatest value in Wikipedia lies in the social network aspect of the site, which I never knew existed. Reading discussion posted about an article teases out a lot more viewpoints and issues than I hear in a typical classroom discussion. The discussions are like a classroom without walls.”
By Teresa Killian Tate