With WikiMedia Policy Initiative, SMG Class Makes Lasting Impact
Boston University’s David Weil has incorporated an innovative combination of critical thinking, rigorous research, real-world engagement, and public policy into the classroom. Weil, the Everett W. Lord Distinguished Faculty Scholar of the Markets, Public Policy & Law Department, is engaging his students in the WikiMedia Foundation’s new WikiMedia Public Policy Initiative (WPPI), a pilot project spanning the 2010-11 academic year. The project engages students and faculty to improve articles on Wikipedia that must fulfill three requirements: They must be nonpartisan, heavily referenced, and factually defendable.
According to Weil, who teaches an MBA-level policy course in the Public & Nonprofit MBA Program, “The course is a perfect match for Wikipedia. It’s a unique opportunity to learn and apply policy analysis methods and at the same time engage in debates about facts, analysis, and implications.”
“It’s a unique opportunity to learn and apply policy analysis methods and at the same time engage in debates about facts, analysis, and implications.”
Throughout the semester, the class debates a variety of pressing social problems–such as regulating exposures to environmental risks, improving educational performance for disadvantaged children, setting policies for organ donation, and requiring disclosure by automakers of carbon footprints–all informed by the tools of economics and public policy analysis.
Joining the WikiMedia Initiative “allows students to subject their research and analysis to a debate involving a real-world audience of thousands of readers,” Weil explains. “The bottom line of the course,” he says, “is to think about a wide variety of difficult public policy questions using insights on how private choices at the individual, firm, and industry levels affect the achievement of public ends.
“The aim of our discussions will be to build their abilities to weigh the different sides of these issues; gain a greater understanding of the nature of debate regarding facts, analysis, and opinion; and ultimately come to their own conclusions about what they say about appropriate private and public policy choices.”
Weil notes the inherent difficulty of the task. “The increasingly polarized nature of many public debates leads many to believe that policy analysis is inherently subjective, with each side of the policy selecting their preferred experts. A critical task is therefore to separate disagreements over facts and analysis from those about the values underlying chosen objectives and recommendations.”
“Unlike the vast majority of student research papers that are filed away at semester’s end, this represents an emerging frontier of student work with relevance for the world beyond the academy.”
Although Weil admits that this is seldom easy to do, “It is an intrinsic and essential part of the public policy analysis process,” he says. ”In these papers, we’re seeking to arrive at a place where all the research, the statistics, the successful and unsuccessful ideas that have come before lead you to a more objective conclusion.”
“Another benefit,” Weil notes, “is that unlike the vast majority of student research papers that are filed away at semester’s end, this represents an emerging frontier of student work with relevance for the world beyond the academy. The students are writing articles that form the basis for how various issues are discussed on Wikipedia, that become the building blocks for future work.
As one of the student groups (writing its policy analysis on the adequacy of Veteran’s benefits for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorders) told the class recently, the WikiMedia Initiative allows their research to directly benefit people with a real need for answers and expands our collective knowledge about socially important topics.”
Stay tuned for more on Boston University School of Management’s participation in the WikiMedia Public Policy Initiative, forthcoming in the Spring ’11 issue of the School magazine, Builders & Leaders.