Professor Receives McCahan Day Educational Innovation Award
Diana Ceballos, assistant professor of environmental health, received the award for her use of Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program, which acts as a bridge between the website and academia.
Diana Ceballos, assistant professor of environmental health, has received the 2021 McCahan Day Educational Innovation Award for her use of Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program. Ceballos accepted the award at the 16th annual McCahan Education Conference on May 27.
The Wikipedia Student Program acts as a bridge between Wikipedia and academia, with instructors assigning students to write and contribute to Wikipedia articles. Ceballos, who studies hazard exposures and health disparities, was introduced to this work a few years ago when she collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help increase the amount of public health content available to the public online.
“Traffic on Wikipedia comes from millions of users, while only thousands may be seeking out the same information on a given website,” says Ceballos. “When something is cited on Wikipedia, it opens a window so more visitors can easily access this information that might otherwise be difficult to track down.”
Ceballos had not used the Wikipedia Student Program at the School of Public Health before, but she says that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she knew the program would be an effective and rewarding way to engage students in her Field Methods in Exposure Science course in a remote format.
Though only 10 students were enrolled in the course, they made a substantial impact on Wikipedia, contributing over 21,400 words and 260 references to 14 articles. Students added sections to articles related to various health topics, including noise pollution, occupational heat stress, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. One student also wrote an original article on blue space in urban planning and translated the article into Spanish.
Students’ contributions go through several checkpoints to ensure reliable information and references before they are approved by Wikipedia editors, and Ceballos says that health-related information, in particular, has extra checkpoints to ensure validity. “This is a really rewarding process for students,” she says. “Not only are they becoming experts on their topic, but they are also learning about and experiencing, in real-time, the peer-review process, which can be difficult to teach.”
Ceballos says this extensive review process has made Wikipedia a much more reliable and trustworthy source in the academic space in recent years. “The force of Wikipedia has become exponential, and the content available on the site has increased dramatically and continues to grow,” says Ceballos. “With programs like this, instructors who once told their students to not trust Wikipedia are now telling them to contribute to the site. Just like with anything, it is important to be a critical reader, but I even cite some things like definitions from Wikipedia in my own work. It is our role as academics to make quality health information accessible to the public.”
It is possible that students’ contributions get taken down after the review process, but Ceballos says “the page will be better whether their content remains or not.” Each article has a queue with a record of all edits and contributions to the page, which she says creates an interesting discussion around the topic. “When contributing content about a health issue, it is very likely that students will use government websites, peer-reviewed studies, or different institutional websites as a reference,” says Ceballos. “The students are navigating the maze of these websites and helping the researchers or agencies disseminate the information more effectively, so their contributions advance the discussion no matter what.”
Ceballos says that receiving the McCahan Award is ultimately a ‘thank you’ to the people she has worked with at the CDC and BU Libraries who have supported this work and invested time in making sure the project succeeds. “Doing meaningful, real-world work like this is the future of education,” she says, “so this award is recognition of everyone’s hard work in helping it continue to flourish.”