Education/Newsletter/August 2013/The Singapore Management University Constitutional and Administrative Law Wikipedia Project – putting accurate and free information about Singapore law on the Internet

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jack Lee, an assistant professor of the School of Law, Singapore Management University, and I've been running the SMU Constitutional and Administrative Law Wikipedia Project since 2010. The participants of the project are Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) and Juris Doctor (J.D.) students on the course on constitutional and administrative law in Singapore that I teach. They work together in groups to prepare Wikipedia articles, or parts of articles, on assigned topics.

I conceived the project as a way to encourage my students to internalize the material covered in the course. I felt they would understand court judgments, law journal articles and textbook chapters better if they had to read, understand, and then explain the law to a lay audience. Also, instead of writing an essay that would be graded and then stuffed into a drawer or thrown into a waste-paper basket, the students would be contributing towards producing a body of accurate information about Singapore law that is freely available on the Internet.

How the project is run[edit]

The way I've run the project has changed slightly over the years, but this is how I did it most recently. Each of my "sections" or classes has about 40 students. Students in each class are divided into eight groups of about five students each, and assigned a Wikipedia article, or part of an article, to write. These can be on areas of administrative or constitutional law, court cases or statutes. I give students the option of proposing a different topic to write an article on, though I've found that not many groups do so.

I require all students who will be editing Wikipedia to register user names. (Wikipedia policy prohibits user names to be shared.) However, I tell students that it is up to them how they wish to arrange their work. If, for example, the students decide to work on various parts of an article offline and then have one of them upload the content on to Wikipedia, that is fine with me. Only the person actually carrying out the upload needs to register a user name. To ensure that students are on the right track, I have each group prepare a draft outline of their article and hold a consultation to discuss it with them at least two weeks before the article is due.

A person – not a member of the project! – editing Wikipedia

I don't impose any word limit for articles, but advise students that as a general guide each article should be between about 20,000 and 40,000 bytes in size (including headings, footnotes and tables), and that a longer article is not necessarily a better one. I indicate that articles should be targeted at laypeople of reasonable intelligence. In other words, students shouldn't assume that readers will be lawyers, and may have to provide some background and explain legal terms and concepts.

When I first ran the project, there was a common deadline in Week 12 of the term for all students to submit their articles. However, I found that this caused some students to have a heavier workload because they had to work on other assignments around the same time. I therefore decided to stagger the deadlines. Now, four groups hand in their articles by Week 7, and the other four by Week 12. This also means I can start grading some of the articles earlier in the term.

Quite early on, I decided that students would edit their articles in sandboxes rather than on the "live" Wikipedia. This makes it less likely that articles will be changed or nominated for deletion by Wikipedia editors who are not members of the project before I've had a chance to grade them. Also, it allows me to wikify and supplement the content of articles before they are accessible by all. The latter step is sometimes necessary because I think it is only fair that students write about matters that are within the course syllabus. To ensure that the articles are factually complete, I then add the material that is not within the syllabus. Of course, all this takes time, which means that articles sometimes do not go live until several months after a particular cycle of the project has ended.

Challenges[edit]

The Google Search home page. The first time the project was run, a draft article in a sandbox with potentially objectionable content turned up in a web search done using such a site – oops.

Over the years, I've faced a number of challenges. After I ran the project for the first time, I was called into a meeting with the Dean and informed there was potentially objectionable content in one of the draft articles that might expose the students who wrote it to the offence of scandalizing the court in Singapore. A colleague had accidentally come across the sandbox containing the article when he did a web search for something else. I had to take the draft offline and ensure that it was properly rephrased and referenced before putting it back on to Wikipedia. In a bid to avoid draft articles from turning up in search engine results, I now add a "__NOINDEX__" tag to all sandboxes. However, I realize this is not foolproof as unfortunately some web crawlers ignore these tags. Therefore, I also make it a point to remind students that they have to consider if what they write may be defamatory or amount to a contempt of court.

Some students have said that the project is too time-consuming. I've tried to address this concern by assuring students that they will be graded solely on the content of their articles and the quality of the referencing, and not on how nice the article looks or whether proper wiki markup has been used. I do run a one-hour workshop on editing Wikipedia for interested students, but attendance is not compulsory.

More worryingly, I can foresee a time when the project may have to draw to a close simply because I have run out of possible topics for Wikipedia articles. Because I teach the same course year after year, the course content is largely the same. Once an article has been written about, say, the right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law, it is rather pointless to assign that subject as a topic for a Wikipedia article again.

I can't say that project has prompted a large number of students to start editing Wikipedia regularly. I haven't really followed up on this, but my impression is that only a handful of students have continued to do so. In any case, this wasn't one of the project's aims. Clearly, some other form of ongoing engagement is desirable to ensure that editors stick around and remain active.

I wish I could end on a more positive note. However, I've enjoyed running the project and hope that it can continue for a few more years. Some students have also told me how they enjoyed taking part in it and seeing the fruits of their labours online. I welcome suggestions as to how the project might be improved – do contact me through my Wikipedia user talk page or e-mail me.

If you would like to have a look at some of the articles my students have worked on as part of the project, click on these links:

These articles, and related ones that were not edited as part of the project, have also been compiled into a Wikipedia book.