Wikipedia As A Lens Into Public Perception of American Higher Education

A few weeks ago, a colleague (Chris Medrano) and I submitted a paper to the 2010 ASHE conference. The paper is a content analysis of Wikipedia articles covering American colleges and universities.  Chris and I believe that we – higher education scholars, administrators, and policy makers – can learn a lot about what the general public believes is important and interesting in higher education by analyzing Wikipedia articles about individual colleges and universities.

I hope this paper is accepted (otherwise I wouldn’t have submitted it!) but I know it’s a bit “out there.”  Despite my apprehension, I firmly believe that we must be mindful of how the public perceives higher education and the explosion of information available on the Internet provides an incredibly rich source of information if we can figure out how to harness it (In this vein, I am extraordinarily happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to study web content analysis and computer-mediated discourse analysis, giving me some of the necessary background and tools to study these data!).  And given that (almost?) every significant college and university in the United States has a Wikipedia article that (theoretically) lies largely outside the control of the institutions, these articles are a rich source of public opinion.

I know what some of you are thinking: Wikipedia editors don’t represent the general public!  I’m not entirely convinced that is true – especially without data – but I’ll concede the point anyway.  Even if those editing the articles are not representative of the general public, surely we can agree that the information placed in these articles clearly indicates what the general public is learning about these institutions from Wikipedia.  So it’s still important to know what’s going on in these articles.

Since we submitted our paper, Wikipedia articles have gotten another boost in visibility and importance: Facebook is making heavy use of Wikipedia articles in Community pages.  This has already raised a discussion within Wikipedia (full disclosure: I’m one of the participants in the discussion) about the role (or lack thereof) Wikipedia should play given that articles are being displayed in Facebook.  More specifically, at least one institution has objected to the graphic that is being displayed in Facebook.  The topmost graphic in nearly all of these Wikipedia articles is the official seal or crest of the institution.  But most institutions have graphic identity standards that mandate the use of another set of graphics (their “wordmark”) and limit the use of the official seal or crest.  Of course, Wikipedia is not required to honor those standards and it’s pretty clear that fair use allows Wikipedia to use official seals and crests without the permission of the institutions.  This is the kind of interesting complexity about which higher education administrators and scholars should know and in which they should appropriately participate.

Love it or hate it, Wikipedia is an immense force in today’s information societies.  We don’t yet know exactly what role it plays in the college choice process but we can be certain that many people are learning about our institutions via Wikipedia.  We can not and should not control the information in Wikipedia but we should be aware of it and the communities that create, edit, and even vandalize that information.  And we should be eager to use that information to develop a better understanding of how the public views higher education and our institutions.

[August update: The proposal has been accepted.  I look forward to sharing the final paper here and at ASHE this fall.]

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