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Public administration and policy professor, graduate students work with Wikipedia to inform public knowledge of U.S. government


Matt Dull Matt Dull

NATIONAL CAPITAL REGION, June 2, 2011 – Matt Dull, assistant professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the National Capital Region, incorporated Wikipedia into his Public Policy Design and Evaluation course this spring. 

Virginia Tech is one of 22 universities to participate in Wikimedia Foundation's Public Policy Initiative, a pilot, grant-funded program in which professors ask their students to improve articles on the English-language Wikipedia as part of the curriculum.

Dull’s aim was to work with his graduate students in the center to improve the quality, consistency, and comprehensiveness of Wikipedia entries in regard to political appointees in U.S. government. According to Dull, political appointees play a unique role in American government; no other industrialized democracy replaces so many key administrators when a new administration takes office. “However, despite the central role they play in the work of most federal agencies and, as a consequence, how government policies are designed and administered, the American public knows little about political appointees or the arcane rules that give them authority,” Dull said.

“Reforming the appointee process has long been a topic of advocacy and with possible reformation a little closer this year, improving the quality of public knowledge is even more important,” said Dull. “I am very pleased that my students were offered this avenue to help educate people about this topic. This collaboration with Wikipedia is very appealing because it really speaks to good government.”

The graduate students focused on two distinct domains of appointee politics: president appointees and senate confirmed appointees to U.S. federal government agencies. “The information on senate confirmed agency appointees is fragmented and not always of reliable quality,” said Dull. “Building this content area helps position Wikipedia as the ‘go-to’ resource for users who seek current and historical information on the U.S. government.”

Dull worked on the Wikipedia project with Virginia Tech students both in Alexandria and Richmond. “Working with students from both of the center’s locations offered a telling contrast,” Dull noted. “Three of the four Alexandria students who worked on the project are federal government employees, whereas the Richmond students focused more on state and local government.”   

The Alexandria-based students worked on the following Wikipedia pages: Recess appointment, Minister (government)United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, United States Department of Defense, Inspector Generals, Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. The Richmond-based students, by contrast, expanded the project’s scope to fit their interests, including pages specific to the Commonwealth of Virginia: Politics of Virginia, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, State (Virginia) Corporation Commission, Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission, New Kent County, Virginia, and Henrico County, Virginia.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act entry did not previously exist on Wikipedia and was created by James Brandell of Alexandria, Va., a doctoral student in public policy in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; Mark Mereand of Alexandria, Va., a master’s student in public administration in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; and Kelvin Garcia of Alexandria, Va.,  a master’s student in public administration in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “These students filled a small but important gap in policy deliberation over this issue by helping those interested in the issue to learn more about why it’s important and about some simple ways the rules governing appointees might be reformed,” said Dull.

“The experience of working with Wikipedia in Professor Dull’s class was fun and rewarding at the same time because we were able to assist in providing consistency and broadening the width and depth of the content available to the general public. Since so much of the information about the senate confirmed political appointees was nonexistent, inaccurate, or outdated, I felt that we were making a meaningful contribution,” said Stacey Shindelar of McLean, Va., a doctoral student in public administration and policy in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

The Wikimedia Foundation provided Dull and other participating professors with assistance in adapting a modular approach that would easily integrate Wikipedia into an existing syllabus. Wikipedia also provided handouts and a Wikipedia Campus Ambassador was present in Dull’s classroom to offer the graduate students help as they began to navigate how to write for and edit Wikipedia entries for the first time. In addition, 50 hand-picked experienced Wikipedians, with a track record of helping new editors, were available to consult with students online through email, Internet Relay Chat, and on wiki.

The students also learned how to go through the peer review process for articles. 

“The best part of working with Wikipedia is the instantaneous updates you can offer to the universe of Wikipedia users about the subject. But I also learned how much quality control there actually is on Wikipedia. The number of volunteer editors is truly amazing; this helps raise the credibility level,” said Brandell. “It is very impressive how it is organized behind the scenes.”

Mereand said he looked at this project as a way of helping the average person better understand the U.S. government accurately and neutrally. “As our government involves everyone, Wikipedia needs to be a good place to start for a neutral point of view,” Mereand said. “Those of us in the academic community with specific knowledge and rigorous methods should leverage opportunities like the one provided by Wikipedia to make our specialized knowledge more widely known and help maintain that neutrality.”

"We were excited to have Professor Matt Dull's class participating in the Public Policy Initiative this term to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles. We hope to see Wikipedia being used in more classrooms at Virginia Tech," said Frank Schulenburg, head of Public Outreach, Wikimedia Foundation.

Based on the success of the spring semester, Dull said he hopes to continue his collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation. 

Virginia Tech has fostered a growing partnership with the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C., community since 1969. Today, the university’s presence in the National Capital Region includes graduate programs and research centers in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Leesburg, Manassas, and Middleburg. In addition to supporting the university’s teaching and research mission, Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region has established collaborations with local and federal agencies, businesses, and other institutions of higher education. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.