Digital Age Students Dive into Wikipedia Initiative

December 17, 2010
by Doug Gavel

The Internet has revolutionized the ways in which citizens access, collate, and utilize information, and there is no more vivid example of that than Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia. With 17 million entries and growing, Wikipedia has quickly become the most widely utilized reference tool on the web.

And it is Wikipedia’s incredible capacity to influence and inform that convinced Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) lecturer Nicco Mele to participate in the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative.

The Initiative was designed to elicit support from academic institutions in order to “to systematically improve the content of the articles on the English language Wikipedia.” Mele agreed to take part in the project, making it a requirement for all registered students in his Media, Politics and Power in the Digital Age course this fall.

“It’s kind of exciting,” he said. “Wikipedia is accessed by five percent of the world’s population on a monthly basis, so it seemed to me that information about public policy should be well documented in authoritative and credible ways.”

Students were encouraged to research and update a specific Wikipedia entry based on their interest and expertise. They were provided with guidance along the way from Wikipedia’s Harvard “ambassadors” and online associates trained in the intricacies of article editing and peer review procedures.

Odo Manuhutu MPA/MC 2011 took part in the project by updating an entry on the United Nations Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.

“It is really interesting to contribute to this online knowledge. The ease of use and the democratic nature (though it seems chaotic) of this platform makes it really compelling. I would argue that this approach can be extended to various fields, including diplomacy and international negotiation,” he said.

Vinu Ilakkuvan, a Harvard School of Public Health student who is also enrolled in Mele’s class, chose an entry that piqued her curiosity.

“I took a class on suicide prevention in the spring and worked in the field this summer, so I decided to look up the suicide prevention article - and found it woefully lacking,” he said. “It had an extreme bias towards mental health approaches to suicide prevention while entirely ignoring the variety of public health approaches that can be taken. So I could take the resources I had been introduced to in class and during the summer and make a substantial contribution to this article.”

Mele said the project presented a unique set of challenges for his students, but he admitted that it exceeded his expectations for a class project.

“I was curious to see if we could add value [to the Wikipedia online body of knowledge] and I think we have,” he remarked.

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Nicco Mele

Nicco Mele, adjunct lecturer in public policy. Photo credit, Martha Stewart.