How Students Are Learning Medicine and Collaborative Skills, And Transforming Wikipedia

In my last blog post, I wrote about the wide range of disciplines represented in student Wikipedia projects. Perhaps the most ambitious effort is the Wiki Project Med Foundation, whose goal is nothing less than “to provide the sum of all medical knowledge to all people in their own language.” Started by Wikipedia enthusiast and UBC clinical professor James Heilman, the foundation is working to this goal by collaborating with various partners. These include the closely allied WikiProject Medicine, the non-profit organization Translators Without Borders, and University of California San Francisco, where fourth-year medical students have been editing Wikipedia for credit in a month-long elective course since 2013.

Amin Azzam, associate clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, found that Wikipedia was second only to Google as the most frequently used source by junior physicians (!) but that there was a clear need to bring medical articles up to par. As he explains in a 2014 interview, he and his collaborators prioritized Wikipedia’s medical articles based on the number of unique visitors to the articles and the importance of the articles from a health perspective. Wikipedia also has a system for ranking article quality, ranging from “stub” to “featured article,” and the collaborators found that many articles were at the low end of the quality scale. Azzam encouraged his students to focus on the intersection of these two—high priority but low quality—and direct their efforts to improving them. Most students picked articles from this list, such as Cirrhosis and Hepatitis, while some pursued articles that held a special interest for them, like “Race and health.” Not only did they edit their chosen articles, but they reviewed articles edited by their class peers. The results, presented at a 2015 medical education conference, were impressive. As measured by Wikipedia’s own quality metrics, the students’ work resulted in improvements to most of the selected articles, and significant improvements to several.[1]

Not only has this work continued to the present, with over 50 articles improved through student work, but UCSF’s School of Pharmacy has recently joined forces with the medical school: Tina Brock, professor and associate dean of Global Health & Educational Innovations, now assigns third-year pharmacy students articles to edit from Wiki Project Pharmacology, an initiative like WikiProject Medicine. In the meantime, the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University has also taken up the initiative. In a recent paper in Education Information Technology, educators Shani Evenstein Sigalov and Rafi Nachmias explain how their students have edited over 128 medical articles in Hebrew Wikipedia, already viewed over 1.4 million times. The paper also presents findings of a related study that focused on students’ learning experience, long-term impact and productive teaching practices.

“But surely” you might ask, “doesn’t Wikipedia’s ‘anyone can edit philosophy’ mean that all this good work can be undone?” I’ll take up that question in my next post.

[1]  Articles that went from “start class” or “C-class” to “B-class” in the first session can be considered to have improved significantly. According to the hyperlinked study, the following articles would qualify as such: “Hepatitis,” “Diabetes,” “Amyloidosis,” “Cholecystitis,” “Toxic epidermal necrolysis,” “Placental abruption,” “Therapeutic hypothermia,” “Premature rupture of membranes,” “Umbilical cord prolapse” and “Omphalitis of newborn.”

John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.


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