Some academics cringe when students turn to Wikipedia as a reference for term papers. University of Washington-Bothell professor Martha Groom has more of an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” response to the online encyclopedia that anyone can write or edit.

 




Instead of asking students in her environmental history course to turn in one big paper at the end of the semester, she requires them either to write an original Wikipedia article or to do a major edit on an existing one.

 




The inspiration came to her as she prepared teaching materials for her class.

 




“I would find these things on Wikipedia,” she said, and would think, “Gosh, this is awfully thin here. I wonder if my students could fill this in?”





Wikipedia has been vilified as a petri dish for misinformation, and the variable accuracy of its articles is a point Groom readily concedes. For her students, the Wikipedia experiment was “transformative,” and students’ writing online proved better than the average undergrad research paper.





Knowing their work was headed for the web, not just one harried professor’s eyes, helped students reach higher — as did the standards set by the volunteer “Wikipedians” who police entries for accuracy and neutral tone, Groom said.