January 24, 2008 – In a striking departure from traditional methods of teaching, a new way for students to gain course credits is emerging. As with so much else this decade, it is all down to the Internet.
Traditional teaching saw students laboring to produce essays that to them felt onerous and oftentimes pointless. Once read by the lecturer their writing was generally consigned to the dustbin.
For some students, that situation is now radically changing.
In a never-before-seen new initiative, the online reference encyclopedia project Citizendium (http://www.citizendium.org), in collaboration with expert teachers and lecturers, has launched Eduzendium. The Eduzendium project allows students to write their assignments online on the Citizendium on a given topic allocated by their teacher.
Students can take responsibility for their work for course credits, and teachers grade the finished work based on the quality of the final article produced from each student's input.
But students not only get to earn grade credits, they add to the global store of knowledge as they earn their written course assignment credits. By collaborating with the rapidly growing Citizendium (CZ) community of expert and non-expert authors, they can have their essays become a lasting article in the Citizendium.
Perhaps best of all, students actually get to learn in a highly collaborative real-time way, enjoying direct online access to highly competent help with their work, in the form of the Citizendium authors and expert editors. The community is small, but growing and quite lively. It is also polite, in no small part because real names are required. For these reasons, the Eduzendium program differs crucially from using Wikipedia in a similar way.
And many basic topics are still wide open.
Previously, students could find assignments labored and pointless since their work would usually be discarded at the end of their course. The new Citizendium student initiative means that students can watch their work live on forever.
It is not only students who benefit. The teachers who have piloted the program have welcomed the new initiative as a breath of fresh air for academia. Academics can find essay assignments equally onerous.
The Eduzendium initiative was proposed by Dr. Sorin A. Matei (Purdue University). In collaboration with Dr. Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia and now Editor-in-Chief of the Citizendium, and a group of Purdue graduate students, he has designed a set of template policies, rules and educational methods that allow incorporating wiki style collaboration in the educational process. The policies have been pretested at Purdue and will soon be released to the educational community through Eduzendium.
Initial procedural tests by the members of the Online Interaction and Facilitation graduate seminar and in a large undergraduate course (Communication 435, Emerging Communication Technologies) reveal that wiki collaboration can be successfully used to recover some of the "idle cycles" of the educational process.
Matei believes that the early tests were a success. "Incorporating wiki assignments within our classes serves multiple purposes," said Matei. "It helps students engage in peer-learning. It offers the instructors more avenues for reaching out to their students. And more importantly, it creates a climate of mass collaboration that stretches beyond the boundaries of classical academic institutions." He is also hopeful that other universities will soon embrace the initiative proposed by the Citizendium.
"Eduzendium is a wonderful way of training our students, making their knowledge matter and helping students and professors reconnect with the broader societal issues that surround them. Our initiative is somewhat similar to the SETI project. Just like the famous initiative, which harnesses the idle cycles of our computers, crunching data behind screensavers, we hope to recover some of the passion, energy, and creativity invested by our scholars and students in papers or assignments that are meant to be read only once by one person," says Matei.
“Besides the sheer effort of reading and grading dozens and dozens of papers, reading often the same assignment year after year can be considered tedious at the very least,” says Prof. Lee Berger, an educator at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who also piloted the program.
With the decline in student use of libraries and printed books and an increased dependency on the Internet for information, “another major problem is the filtering of information by students who often don’t have the background to know what’s reliable or not on the Internet--or what’s been misquoted, or simply plagiarized," says Sanger. “Students thus end up not only submitting the same old same old, but it’s now too often wrong as well.”
Sanger established the Citizendium a little over a year ago, using a Wikipedia-type model, but with a mix of expert and non-expert authors and editors, all contributing under their real names and a agreement that ensures a stable, pleasant community. The community celebrated its 5,000th article two days ago, and produced more words than Wikipedia did in its first year.
According to Berger, the Citizendium's new Eduzendium (EZ) project is generating strong successful results.
“What we found almost immediately was that students responded well to the online approach of CZ. Not only were we delighted to find that their articles as a whole were better written than traditional essays, but the students benefit--and most importantly learn from--the constructive guidance of others," says Berger, who is on the Executive Committee of CZ and was among the first to test the program with his fourth year Honours class last semester.
Berger attributes the higher quality of writing he is seeing from his Honours students to CZ’s real name policy. “This is one key difference between Citizendium and Wikipedia,” Berger noted. “The students know that what they put online will be there for everyone to see, not just during the semester but forever. It’s a real motivator for quality and enhanced appetite for learning. As an educator, nothing makes me feel more inspired than seeing students so enthusiastically embracing a new way to learn.”
Berger said grading assignments was no problem as the wiki software makes it easy to verify how much students have contributed to each article.
Following the success of the EZ pilot, the experiment is now being tried with larger classes--up to eighty students at University of Colorado and Temple University--and with students at varying levels of education. So far academics at six major Universities in Africa and the United States have tried, or are about to try, the EZ experiments in classes ranging from Anthropology to Finance.
“It really is a win-win-win scenario for educators, students, and CZ,” points out Sanger. “Educators receive a higher degree of enthusiasm from their students, see the results immediately and get assistance from the global community of experts; students get to see their work online, learn about collaboration and have their writing actually contribute something to global knowledge; and CZ grows, gaining new contributions and contributors. We're proud to offer educators and students this opportunity.”
Berger added: “Many academics who shy away from such a project might think that it’s too technically advanced for their students, but we have found that’s simply not true. Firstly, students are a lot more “online” literate
than we give them credit for--this is the sphere they are most comfortable in after all--and secondly, being a very new project, there is a tremendous amount of scope on Citizendium for students to contribute core articles on the basics of the class they are taking.”
Sanger notes: “There’s a lot of scope for work at any level when you are trying to compile the whole of human knowledge in one project. One must simply pick topics that students at their given level are capable of doing a good job with. And besides, it's a wiki. If they happen to do a mediocre job, you can be sure that their work will be improved in time.”
For more information on how to get your class involved in the Eduzendium project at the Citizendium, contact Dr. Lee Berger (Lee.firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Sorin Matei (email@example.com).
PRESS CONTACT INFORMATION:
Prof. Lee Berger
- Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science
- University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Prof. Sorin A. Matei
- Associate Professor, Communications Department
- Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
Dr. Larry Sanger
- Editor-in-Chief, Citizendium; co-founder of Wikipedia