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Wikipedia goes to class

world Updated: May 31, 2011 00:18 IST

A Virginia Tech graduate student hit save on her overview of the state workers' compensation commission one spring day, but before her professor could take a look at it, someone else began deleting entire sections, calling them trivial and promotional.

It wasn't a teaching assistant on a power trip - it was a Wikipedia editor known only as "Mean as custard."

This school year, dozens of professors from across the country gave students an unexpected assignment: Write Wikipedia entries about public policy issues.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the website, organised the project in an effort to bulk up the decade-old online encyclopedia's coverage of topics ranging from the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Such issues have been treated on the site in much less depth than TV shows, celebrity biographies and other elements of pop culture.

Many students involved in the project have received humbling lessons about open-source writing as their work was revised, attacked or deleted by anonymous critics with unknown credentials.

In the fall semester, nine professors were involved. There are about three dozen now. By next semester, the foundation hopes to expand to schools in India, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. The goal is to train at least 10,000 professors and students by 2013.

As the Wikipedia catalogue has grown to 18 million entries in more than 270 languages, the site has become one of the leading ways much of the world learns about new topics, double-checks memories of past events and settles bar bets.

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.)