Graduate students write, update Wikipedia public policy articles

Chris Cooper (center), associate professor of political science and public affairs and director of the Public Policy Institute, works with students Josh Purdy and Anne Cortes as they write public policy articles to be published on Wikipedia.

Chris Cooper (center), associate professor of political science and public affairs and director of the Public Policy Institute, works with students Josh Purdy and Anne Cortes as they write public policy articles to be published on Wikipedia.

Western Carolina University students in a graduate-level policy analysis course are researching and writing articles for Wikipedia as part of an initiative to improve the quality of public policy content on the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

“Like it or not, the layman’s and the expert’s discourse alike draw heavily from online sources like Wikipedia,” said Billy Schweig, a student in the course and WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs. “I think it’s pretty forward-thinking of our program to not only acknowledge that, but also to join efforts like the Wikimedia Policy Project that seek to improve everyone’s access to good information.”

Wikimedia, a nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, received a grant from the Stanton Foundation to work with institutions of higher education to have students write articles on public policy topics, citing reliable sources such as scholarly articles or books.

Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science and public affairs and director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, contacted Wikimedia about possible participation. WCU became one of 21 universities selected to participate when Cooper’s “Policy Analysis” graduate course was chosen for inclusion.

Students in the course learn to understand, analyze and communicate public policy and strategy, and incorporating the Wikipedia project offered a hands-on way to communicate about policy with the broader public, said Cooper.

“Also, when students post something on Wikipedia, people will respond,” said Cooper. “The students have to defend their position and craft their case in a way that is true, honest and palatable to readers on Wikipedia. It ends up being a laboratory for democratic debate.”

Supporting this semester’s Wikimedia Foundation Public Policy Project participants are a range of Wikipedia experts, including 62 online ambassadors and 51 campus ambassadors, one of whom is Laura Cruz, interim director of the WCU Coulter Faculty Commons. Cruz is currently working with Cooper’s students as the Wikipedia expert, while Cooper serves as the content expert.

Frank Schulenburg, head of public outreach for the Wikimedia Foundation, said he was excited to have Western Carolina University on board. “We look forward to seeing how Professor Cooper’s public policy students contribute to freely shared knowledge for the world by writing content on Wikipedia,” said Schulenburg.

WCU students have selected a range of topics to study and update on Wikipedia. Anne Cortes, a breast cancer survivor caring for a husband who has an inoperable brain tumor, chose “patient-centered outcomes” to research and write about for Wikipedia. Schweig debated between 3-D printing copyright issues and medical amnesty before settling on “post-detection policy” – procedures centered on how to respond in the event of contact with intelligent alien life. “It isn’t exactly the most pertinent issue when it comes to contemporary policy debates, but if it were to happen, you can bet that about 6 billion people would want to know NASA’s policy pretty quickly,” he said.

For more information, contact Cooper at 828-227-3861 or ccooper@wcu.edu.