Posts tagged ‘Wikipedia’

The NCLB Wikipedia Article’s Sordid History

Wikiscanner is a tool that allows people to view Wikipedia edits by the specific organizations that made them.  For example, if you type in “Wal-Mart” you discover that someone at the corporation cares a lot about video games and, of course, Wal-Mart. You can also search for edits by the specific Wikipedia page. So when you type in “2006 Duke University Lacrosse Case” you find that 1025 edits have been made to the page, including 202 by Duke University.

Needless to say, this tool raises lots of questions, uncovers questionable edits, and provides hours of entertainment. In fact, Wired magazine compiles a list of salacious edits that can be accessed from Wikiscanner’s homepage.

Using Wikiscanner, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of the Wikipedia article on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As the NCLB Wikipedia page’s overview asserts, “the effectiveness and desirability of NCLB’s measures are hotly debated.” Given this, I thought I might find some controversial edits or at least some juicy debate on the article’s discussion page.

Here’s what I found: According to Wikiscanner, 648 edits have been made to the No Child Left Behind Wikipedia article. Surprisingly, the Wikiscanner results show no edits attributable to national education nonprofits, associations, think tanks, teacher unions, or similar organizations. The only federal government edit was made by the U.S. Department of Transportation and it was just a minor edit that changed the term “founding people” to “founding fathers.”

So who made all of the NCLB article’s edits? Wikiscanner’s results show a number of edits were made by universities and school districts. Interestingly, many of the school district edits seemed to break Wikipedia’s neutral point of view (NPOV) guidelines. As mentioned already, there is a lot of debate about NCLB’s measures; educators in particular have strong feelings about the law because they’re the ones who acutely experience its stipulations, sanctions, and overall impact on a daily basis. Those strong feelings seem to have funneled into questionable Wikipedia edits. The Wikipedia article includes a section called “claims made in criticism of the Act.” Currently the text in this section does a pretty good job of outlining common criticisms of the Act and attributing those criticisms to published quotes by education experts, reports, poll results, newspaper articles, etc. But the Wikipedia scanner shows that this section has historically been a place for those disgruntled with the law to air their complaints. For example, Bellevue School District in Issaquah, Washington made additions in August 2005 that stated:

No Child Left behind focuses on “Teaching to the Test” and putting high expectations on teachers without providing the support they need to meet those expectations. Some speculate that President G.W. Bush has pushed this through in an effort to topple the public education system.

It’s clear these edits were the editor’s personal opinion and were not backed up with citations from a reliable source. The Wikiscanner results reveal a number of similarly questionable edits of this type by other school districts.

Next, I navigated to the No Child Left Behind article’s discussion page. I was initially surprised to find a fairly short page of user discussion until I realized that several years’ worth of discussion had recently been archived in an attempt to clean up the page. On the current discussion page there is some intense, but very polite, debate about the law’s implications for students with disabilities. Other than that conversation, the page includes short and to-the-point exchanges on a variety of relatively mundane issues such as the pronunciation of NCLB, needed article updates, and an attempt to clean up an unwieldy list of external links.

In reviewing the article’s recent history, I stumbled across some vandalism. Someone changed the caption under an image of President Bush signing the NCLB Act to read that Bush was adopting a child to tend to his plantation farm. The vandalism was caught and corrected by another Wikipedia user within one minute.

You might think that uncovering vandalism and highly slanted edits like the ones described above would make me doubt the accuracy and usefulness of Wikipedia, but the very opposite happened. This exercise showed me that Wikipedia really does work because people care enough to fix mistakes and constantly make improvements. I really believe that as long as people keep caring, Wikipedia articles like the one about NCLB will keep improving.

July 6, 2008 at 11:04 pm 2 comments

Make More People Care

I don’t remember when I first heard about Wikipedia. It could have been six years ago, or maybe it was three. What I do remember was my dubious reaction. The idea of an encyclopedia editable by all seemed absurd – even stupid. Why leave the door open to the potential for complete inaccuracy?

But now I’m an occasional Wikipedia user and I think Wikipedia is a great free resource. So what changed my mind? It’s hard to say because it’s not as if I was even aware my mind had changed. Maybe it was the quality of the entries I stumbled across. It could have been the breadth and depth of topics the online encyclopedia covers. Perhaps I just had to get used to the idea of wikis themselves.

It’s likely that all of the above contributed to my change of mind. And after reading about Wikipedia for class, I’m only more convinced that the online, editable encyclopedia is providing a valuable service. It might not quite be the charitable humanitarian effort its founder, Jimmy Wales, envisions, but it’s become the fastest-growing reference work ever and an incredible example of how an online network of unpaid volunteers from across the world can pool knowledge and efforts to create an always-changing, living, breathing font of information.

My social media instructor asked us to consider whether we should trust Wikipedia or an expert-led encyclopedia more. My answer is that it depends. I actually think comparing Wikipedia to something like Britannica Online is comparing apples to oranges. Wikipedia is free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And for real-time information, it just can’t be beat. For better or for worse, Tim Russert’s Wikipedia page was updated with news of his death before any of the networks made the announcement. But if I had to do research for a paper or for a project at work, I wouldn’t rely solely on Wikipedia. I might use it as a starting point, though. The beauty of Wikipedia is that it requires citations, so following a Wikipedia page’s references to primary sources is a good way to track down information straight from the experts.

We were also asked how Wikipedia could be set-up to better provide accuracy. I started to brainstorm ideas, only to find that many of them are already in practice. Wikipedia’s organization and its system of checks and balances is a lot more structured than I had envisioned.  For example, any user can put an article on his or her watch list, which records all changes to that entry. As a last resort, particularly controversial pages can be locked in the face of constant vandalism or editing wars.

Actual studies have shown that vandalism of Wikipedia articles, such as mass deletions or insertion of obscenities, are typically corrected by users who care in a matter of minutes. And according to Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, “if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

So my solution to providing better Wikipedia accuracy: Make more people care.

June 22, 2008 at 10:58 pm 1 comment

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