Experimenting with Wikipedia in the classroom

Late last year, I came across a very insightful podcast series called BiblioTech on the University Affairs website. Each episode focuses on technology and higher education–Twitter in the classroom, for instance, or storage in the cloud–so of course I was immediately hooked. I had missed the first thirteen episodes, but they’re all quite short–usually between ten and fifteen minutes long–so I managed to catch up after two jogs and a commute to work.

Episodes 12 (Wikipedia) and 13 (Plagiarism) in particular piqued my interest and actually inspired me to change the format of the courses I’m teaching this term: an MA-level Theory of Translation and a BA-level Introduction to Translation into English course.

First, I listened to the Plagiarism episode, which mainly discussed how to design tests and assignments that discourage students from cheating. As host Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, argued:

We need to create assignments that have students produce something meaningful to them, but opaque to everyone else.

Her suggestions included having students use material from the classroom lectures and discussions in their assignments (e.g. by blogging about each week’s lectures, and then using these blog posts to write their final paper), having students build on peer interactions via Twitter, Facebook or the course website to develop their assignments, or having students contribute to open-access textbooks through initiatives like Wikibooks.

I then listened to the Wikipedia episode, where Mazar made the following argument about why instructors should integrate Wikipedia into classroom assignments:

When people tell me that they saw something inaccurate on Wikipedia, and scoff at how poor a source it is, I have to ask them: why didn’t you fix it? Isn’t that our role in society, those of us with access to good information and the time to consider it, isn’t it our role to help improve the level of knowledge and understanding of our communities? Making sure Wikipedia is accurate when we have the chance to is one small, easy way to contribute. If you see an error, you can fix it. That’s how Wikipedia works.

Together, these two episodes got me thinking about the assignments I would be designing for my courses, and it didn’t take me long to decide that I would incorporate Wikipedia and blogging into my courses: translation of Wikipedia articles for the undergraduate translation course, and blogging as the medium for submitting, producing and collaborating on written work in the graduate theory course. Next month, I’ll write a post about how I decided to integrate blogs into my graduate theory class, but right now, I want to focus on Wikipedia and its potential as a teaching tool in translation classrooms.

But first, a short digression: A couple of years ago, I had students in my undergraduate translation classes work in group or partners to translate texts for non-profit organizations as a final course assignment. The students seemed to really like translating texts that would actually be used by an organization instead of texts that were nothing more than an exercise to be filed away at the end of term. And I enjoyed being able to submit a large project to a non-profit at the end of the term. But it was a lot of work on my part, mainly because I acted as a project manager by finding a non-profit with a text of just the right length and just the right difficulty, then splitting up the text for the class, correcting the final submissions, and finally translating the rest of the text, since the documents we were given to translate were inevitably too long for me to assign entirely to the students. So after two years, I went back to having students translate less taxing texts, like newspaper or magazine articles, since it’s easier to correct twenty translations of the same text than it is to correct twenty excerpts from a longer project. But I did miss the authentic assignments.

So, when I listened to the BiblioTech podcasts, I realized Wikipedia might be a good solution to the problem. Students can choose their own articles to translate (freeing me from the project-management aspect), and the wide variety of subjects needing translation–Wikipedians have tagged over 9000 articles as possible candidates for French-to-English translation–means we should be able to find something to interest everyone, and something just the right length for the assignment (around 300 words per student). I still expect to have to spend more time correcting the translations, but I think this will be less work overall than the previous projects.

As I was planning out the project, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Wikimedia Foundation has established an education program in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Egypt. The Canada Education Program is intended to help university professors integrate Wikipedia projects into their courses, and it offers advantages like an online ambassador for every class to help students navigate the technical challenges of editing in the Wikipedia environment. In addition, there’s an adviser who works closely with professors who join the program. Fortunately for me, he’s based in Toronto, which means I was able to chat with him earlier this month about the program. His recent article in the Huffington Post offers some good arguments for why Wikipedia is a useful classroom tool. He suggests, for instance, that since companies like the CIA use wikis in their work environments, students are likely to need to be familiar with wiki technology and culture after they graduate. In addition, students gain exposure by contributing to articles that are visible online, and they learn to engage in debates with classmates and Wikipedians as their contributions are reviewed and edited by others.

I’m still in the early stages of this experiment… I don’t yet know, for instance, whether students will have a lot of trouble editing their articles, and whether the technical challenges can all be solved by the online ambassador who will be working us. I’ve asked students to use Google Documents to do most of the translating work, but I’m expecting students to add the final versions to Wikipedia before the end of the term, so many of these problems may crop up only in March or April. I also expect a lot of in-class discussion about Wikipedia’s Translation Guidelines, which encourage omission of irrelevant information and adaptation or explanation of cultural references:

Translation between Wikipedias need not transfer all content from any given article. If certain portions of an article appear to be low-quality or unverifiable, use your judgment and do not translate this content. Once you have finished translating, you may ask a proofreader to check the translation.
[…]
A useful translation may require more than just a faithful rendering of the original. Thus it may be necessary to explain the meaning of terms not commonly known throughout the English-speaking world. For example, a typical reader of English needs no explanation of The Wizard of Oz, but has no idea who Zwarte Piet might be. By contrast, for a typical reader of Dutch, it might be the other way around.

Because students may find they have more freedom to make their own judgements about the relevance of information, I’ve asked them to do in-class presentation about their translation decisions and the experience of working in Wikipedia at the end of the term. I’ll be sure to post some of my own thoughts on this experiment after the term is over, the marking is complete and the translations are posted online. I’ll even post links to some of our work.

Has anyone else used (or thought about using) Wikipedia articles as translation assignments? If so, I’d certainly appreciate your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Website