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You can't copy-paste this homework
The students of the Symbiosis School of Economics have suddenly rediscovered the college library. Like most other students, whenever asked to produce a research paper they would routinely look to every lazy researcher's best friend, Wikipedia. But all that changed four months back.
Like most members of the academic world, Ishita Ghosh, assistant professor at the SSE, was worried about students turning into a copy-paste generation. Till she decided to beat them at their own game - she asked her students to write original entries for Wikipedia itself. There are others like Ghosh in various colleges across Pune.
For more than 1, 000 students at SSE and the College of Engineering, Pune, Wikipedia, the world's largest online, collaborative encyclopedia, is not just a free online encyclopedia, but also a platform to prove their worth as researchers. Professors at these colleges, under an India Education Project by the Wikimedia Foundation, are not asking their students to write papers but original Wikipedia entries, complete with paper citations, references and facts. This novel idea of student contributions has sparked a flurry of activity on campus and is helping teachers judge fundamental research skills of their students.
Unlike what it sounds like, writing an entry for the encyclopedia is not easy. "They have to research primary sources. I judge their entries on the content, flow and argument of the piece, how many external sources and references they have used and how comprehensive the article is, " says Ghosh. In a semester, Ghosh gives 10 per cent weightage to these Wikipedia entries. For the Foundation India and its participation, in fact, is important enough to warrant the foundation's first office out of San Francisco being in here. And it is here on a mission to help India represent itself better. The project had targeted 250 such students initially but already have more than 1, 000 and will spread to other cities next year. While initially reluctant, students have now warmed up to the idea.
Every morning Abhilasha Sharma, a 20-yearold student at SSE, craves a hit. Over the last 30 days, she got 950 but this 20-year-old keeps wanting more. Sharma's day is now incomplete if she doesn't log on to Wikipedia, the world's largest online collaborative encyclopedia, at least once a day to check how many hits her entry received. But it hasn't been easy. Within five days of her putting up her article on Robinson Crusoe Economy her worst fear came true - the article got nominated for deletion. For these students, writing an academic paper is no longer an exercise in isolation. It means putting up your labour of weeks online to a prospective audience of 400 million worldwide, all of who can remark on the content and its quality, find holes in the argument and edit it.
"I went live with my article too soon, when I had little content. So I chatted with the guy who wanted it deleted, a 70-year-old guy in the UK. It was really cool. My work was being watched but not by my professor and he really pushed me to improve my content. This is a dog-eat-dog world but not Wikipedia. If a stranger can be so nice to me so can I, " said Sharma, who intends to continue contributing to Wikipedia.
And that is what the Foundation wants. "Out of about 100, 000 editors worldwide, only about 1, 250 are from India, which is a shame. By population or internet access proportion one in every 5 or 6 editors should be from India, " said Hisham Mundol, consultant to the foundation.
The students are helped along the way by volunteer campus ambassadors, who are Wikipedia enthusiasts. "This is about institutionalising the habit of writing and editing. This does not have a shelf life. Here is an audience of 400 million or even take 10 per cent of it. You are not writing for a dustbin, " said Ram Shankar Yadav, a campus ambassador.
The foundation, whose only office out of San Francisco is in India, had called for applications for volunteers for 20 positions and they received more than 700. "This was unexpected because all I had promised was a T shirt and some love from me, " laughed Mundol. Students are even putting their experience up on their resumes for campus placements in a bid to differentiate it from the crowd.
The project has also brought out the intense competitor in Sharma thanks to the Leaderboard ranks for contributors according to the amount of content added in bytes. "I am really obsessive about it. That has motivated me so much. I want to be on top, " said Sharma.
The India story of Wikipedia is, however, different from the solely English-speaking world. Though at present most of the editors and contributors are in the English language version, more and more regional language wiki communities are logging on.
Shiju Alex, a 34-year-old Bangalore-based software engineer and Wikipedia outreach volunteer said that lack of awareness about free editing, access to internet and language barriers keeps a mammoth chunk of India's non-English speaking population from participating. At present there are 20 active Indian language communities and 20 are in incubation.
"Southern communities, such as Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu are doing better mostly because of access to Internet, love for their mother tongue and outreach programs, " said Alex.
The Malayalam community is the strongest with 250 active editors, mainly because of Alex who is leading the indic languages growth. "We have held Wiki workshops in Kerala, have started an offline Malayalam version and also tied up with the IT dept of Kerala's education department, under which volunteers received training in almost all districts, " added Alex. Similar outreach programmes are being built for Tamil and Oriya speakers as well.
But one sore point for Wikipedia around the world is yet to find a solution in India as well - the presence of women editors/contributors. Worldwide, almost 90 per cent of contributors are male. "This is evident when you visit a Star Wars article and each character is explained in excruciating detail while, say, an article on sarees would be sketchy, " said Mundol.
For Wiki evangelists such as Yadav and Alex the potential of India in the encyclopedia is a no-brainer. "We are a country which gave people like Aryabhatta, Bappi Lahiri and Poonam Pandey. The India story needs to be told, " said Yadav. Initial analysis of edits from India post the outreach has revealed that people from rural parts have started writing about their towns, villages and monuments.
The value of such 24/7 online chatter on discussion groups, which can passionately argue and debate issues from video game characters, to the finer points of a climate model or Justin Bieber's latest single is varied. For Rashabh Tatiraju, a 15-year-old cyclone enthusiast, it is teamwork with an expert in the US and for Pradeep Mohandas, an astronomy and wiki fan, it is how to respect differing points of view on a subject.
The foundation believes and hopes that, like Sharma, all the Pune students will go on to become regular Wikipedians, because now they know the power of an edit button.
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