Friday, October 2, 2015

Writing for Wikipedia: A Teaching Experiment

Writing reports and presenting results is an important part in an engineer's life, hence teaching these skills is an important (implicit or explicit) part in engineering curricula. At my former affiliation, SPSC at Graz University of Technology, we were teaching the course "Verfassen wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten" to bachelor's students in their fifth semester, preparing them for the challenging task of writing and presenting their bachelor's thesis. There, the approach was (roughly) as follows:
  • Students grouped in pairs or triples and chose a topic related to the scientific process (e.g., writing good introductions, writing abstracts, giving a scientific presentation, plagiarism and literature searches, etc.).
  • They had to give a presentation on this topic, teaching their colleagues the respective skills (flipped classroom).
  • They chose a simple topic from signal processing (e.g., filter design) and wrote a four-page scientific LaTeX article presenting the topic as if it was their own invention.
Let me stress that again: Students should not write a review or a summary, but a scientific paper with a "novel" contribution. Why? Because that's what they have to do when they stay in academia.

Here, at the LNT of Technische Universitaet Muenchen, the offered Gradiate Seminar Mobile Communications and Coding is a very similar course (albeit for master's students): The expected outcomes are again presentation and writing skills, together with acquiring knowledge in a particular field inside communications and coding. In the last years, the approach was as follows:
  • Each student chose a scientific topic and had to write a four-page scientific LaTeX article summarizing the core aspects (in the structure of a scientific paper).
  • Students had to present these core aspects in a 20 minutes presentation.
The difference is apparent: Students at LNT had to write and present summaries rather than writing papers claiming original contribution. Why? Probably because that's what they have to do when they will NOT stay in academia.

But both approaches have one thing in common: Guess what happens to these four-page articles the students write. Nothing. I strongly doubt that any of our students every took a look at their paper after the end of the course. That does not mean that these articles are useless. They are not only formal requirements to achieve the degree, but they are valuable stepping stones for acquiring important skills: writing scientifically, learning about communications or signal processing, etc. In other words, the student must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.

In an effort to reduce the number of ladders thrown away, my colleague last semester required the students to copy their articles into a wiki accessible only for registered members. This was an amazing idea, one that made the seminar much more sustainable than it was before, and browsing through last year's student wiki articles gave me a good idea about what the students are capable of. Nevertheless, while the ladders are not thrown away now, they are still neatly locked up in a room in the basement.

This winter term, in which I am co-responsible for the course, I'd like to go one step further: Of all the ladders the students climb in this term, together with my colleagues we will select the most useful ones and try to make them fit for others to climb: The best student articles should end up as articles on Wikipedia. The idea is not new, as there have been several studies investigating the success of this method (for example, this one; for the supplementary material you need a subscription).

I'm not sure if we will succeed in this. Honestly, I would not want to write a Wikipedia article. But of the eight topics we are going to provide, at least four will be appropriate for an article, and at least two others could extend existing articles. Just to give you an example: As of Septemer 23rd, 2015, there is no Wikipedia article on information dimension. If such an article appears in Wikipedia by the end of January 2016, then the teaching experiment will have been successful. I'll keep you posted!