Offering Students a Graded Wiki Option—My Experiences, and Some Lessons

Last semester in Cyberspace Law, I gave students the option to write a wiki entry for a portion of their grade. I was inspired to offer this option based on my dystopian assessments of Wikipedia’s labor model. In my paper, I wrote that one possible new labor source for Wikipedia could be students working on graded school assignments. I figured I should experiment with this myself to gauge its viability. This blog post recaps my experiences and talks about some lessons.

Configuration Choices

Length and Grading Percentage. When I initially set student expectations, I anticipated that a “typical” student entry on a cyberlaw topic should be about 600 words. This was too low. The average student first draft was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 words. There are a few reasons for the long drafts. First, it’s easier to write long than short. Second, students tend to be comprehensive in their treatment of a topic, and they have a hard time knowing what to leave out. Finally, I probably undershot the word target.

With the idea that students would be writing about 600 words, I set the grading percentage as 20%. (Normally I assign about 3,000 words to my final exam, so 600/3000 = 20%). Students choosing the wiki option were still required to write the exam, but their exam grade was only 80% of the final grade.

As it turns out, 20% grade allocation to the wiki entry was probably too low based on the amount of work that students actually invested. I had hoped that students could crank out a 600 word entry in about 10 hours (8 hours of research, 2 hours of writing), but I’m sure that most students took substantially more time than that. In the end, I think the students still got good value in terms of long-term skill-building. However, in terms of my expectations for students, I don’t think I properly calibrated the grading percentage.

If I were to offer this option again, I would probably set the students’ expectations at 1,500 words for 33% or maybe even 50% of the final grade.

Despite my misconfigurations, about one-quarter of my students opted into the graded wiki option (12 out of 45 students). My belief is that the students did so for one of two primary motivations (or both): (1) they liked the idea of hedging their grading exposure from a 100% final, and (2) they liked the idea of researching and writing on a Cyberlaw topic. I gave students the option of working together on a topic, but none ended up pursuing that.

Mandatory v. Optional. I personally would not make writing a wiki entry a mandatory portion of the course grade (at least, not in a course where the entry was less than 100% of the grade). It was hard enough to get good results from students who had opted-in. For students who don’t actually want to write a wiki entry (for whatever reason—some students just aren’t writers), the exercise could be torture.

Supervisory Time Required

As it was, I found the exercise much more demanding on my time than I expected. In retrospect, I should have realized that students always struggle with identifying good topics—even students who opted-in and thus were presumably more motivated than other students, and even though topic novelty wasn’t required or desired. I went multiple rounds with almost every student on topic selection, in some cases more than a half-dozen interactions. Ultimately most students got onto a manageable topic, but the process was hardly smooth. (This was the case even though I pointed students to Brian Carver’s leftover topic list from his Spring 2009 Cyberlaw course, where he requires a wiki entry as part of the course.)

I also underestimated the amount of my time required to edit student entries. Most students did not intuitively understand how to approach writing an encyclopedic treatment of a topic. As a result, I did at least one very thorough edit of every student’s entry that took me no less than 1 hour per entry, and I did additional edits (in some cases, several times) of student entries. I’m not sure the students enjoyed getting a gory redline back from me, although I do think students appreciated my suggestions. For some students, this was the first, and perhaps the only, time they got line-by-line edits of their work from one of their law school professors.

Even with the best first-draft entries, however, it was clear that I needed to spend a non-trivial amount of supervisory time before the entry would be ready for publication. Given that people sometimes rely on Wikipedia information and occasionally even sue when it’s wrong, it would have been potentially problematic if students had publicly posted their first versions (or, for that matter, any unapproved version).

Finally, although my students were good about solving their own problems, I believe it took students a substantial amount of time to format their entries into Wikipedia’s format.

The Results

I required that all students publicly post their entries when finished, although one student didn’t reach the point where publication was appropriate. Another student chose to publish her entry on “Use in Commerce Issues re Domain Name Trademark Infringement/Dilution Actions” at the IT Law Wiki rather than Wikipedia. The other 10 entries were posted at Wikipedia:

* Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act

* eBay v. Bidder’s Edge

* Planned Parenthood Fed’n of Am., Inc. v. Bucci

* Privacy policy

* Radio advertisement

* Reverse domain hijacking

* Taxation of Digital Goods

* Unions and Internet Technology Use [note: this one has been deleted--see the brief discussion about deleting it]

* United States v. Lori Drew

* Zippo Manufacturing Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc.

Only one entry has been deleted so far, and the other entries (so far) have been wiki-gnomed but otherwise are largely intact. Given Wikipedia’s reputation for revert wars and xenophobia, I had expected substantial pushback on every entry. I was especially pleased that the hardcore Wikipedians didn’t appear to bite the newcomers despite the students’ bold changes, although I can’t say that I saw much welcoming activity either.

I received some positive feedback from students about the experience (although, perhaps not surprisingly, the exercise was virtually unaddressed in the formal student evaluations). Students liked practicing their writing skills. Personally, I thought writing a wiki entry was a good vehicle for students to practice writing outside of a final exam format. I know the students took pride in their work and got a thrill out of hitting the “publish” button. I believe some of the students hope to use their entry as a writing sample, although I’ve never fully understood how wiki entries can act as a writing sample given that the entry isn’t attributed very well and is constantly being modified by others.

Some Lessons

1) It is unrealistic to expect that most law students can produce useful entries without supervision.

2) Thus, like any other student writing project, a supervising faculty member will need to spend significant time supporting the students.

3) I think a wiki entry might be a useful alternative to the traditional seminar paper. I have never been a huge fan of requiring students to write law review-style seminar paper in a semester-long course. Ultimately I think it’s nearly impossible for a novice to come up with a good topic and write a coherent and well-researched paper in a 4 month semester from a cold start. (I expand on that point a little here). As a result, in practice, many student seminar papers devolve into quasi-encyclopedic treatments of a topic with a paragraph of student commentary tacked onto the end. Instead of going through that charade, the professor could channel the student’s research and writing effort into an expressly encyclopedic treatment. This would reduce the pressure students feel to come up with a novel topic, and it would allow the world at large to benefit from the student’s work rather than the effort going into a desk drawer (or worse, the circular file) at the semester’s end.

Unfortunately, using Wikipedia entries as seminar papers may not be practical at my law school. We require students to complete a “supervised analytical writing” requirement that produces a law review-style paper whose length would usually be too long for a wiki entry. The requirement is a minimum of 20 pages; even if that were double-spaced pages, it would still be a 5,000 word entry, and Wikipedia doesn’t need many 5,000 word entries.

4) If I offer the graded wiki option again in my Cyberspace Law course, I will:

* cap the number of students who can participate so I can ensure adequate supervision time

* try to give priority to motivated students who can identify a good topic quickly

* expect students to write more words, and allocate the grading percentage accordingly

I conclude this experiment with mixed feelings and uncertainty about whether I would try it again. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

UPDATE: Luis Villa contributes some thoughts about graded wiki exercises, mostly from the student perspective.