A friend asked me what I think about the story in the Chronicle about the professor who encouraged his students to create a hoax story about a pirate in order to teach them about students about vetting the quality of their sources as part of a history class. They created a blog about the fake history and added a Wikipedia page about the fictional pirate. Then they “Facebooked, Twittered, and Shoutwired it.” The professor pulled the plug when he found out that some of his historian colleagues were buying into the hoax.
So what do I think of it? I think it stinks.
My issue is not with the hoax part. In fact, I think it was a clever way to teach students some important lessons in an engaging and hands-on way. Nor do I feel bad for the professor’s colleagues who were fooled. Any professional historian who buys into some bogus information on the web should probably be taking that class rather than teaching somewhere. I also think the Chronicle‘s headline, “Teaching by Lying,” is cheap. I had absolutely no problem with anything this professor did—until he told his students to write the fake Wikipedia page.
Think of it this way. Suppose there was a community garden in town. A botany professor wanted to teach his students about the dangers of shoddy pest control. So he encouraged his students to plant a crop in the community garden and deliberately infect it with aphids. Sure enough, the other plots in the garden became infected too. Would that be OK?
Because that’s what this guy did. A lot of people put huge amounts of time and effort into creating the public resource that is Wikipedia. By deliberately planting a hoax article—and inviting the Chronicle to write about how he and his students got away with it—he deliberately infected the entire garden with a credibility bug. Everybody already knows that gardens are susceptible to diseases and need constant vigilence, so it’s not like he was performing some enormous public service by proving it. No, what he did was malicious and showed a careless disregard for the effort that Wikipedians put in. Worse, he taught that disregard to his students.
If he wanted to have his students create a hoax using their own blog, that’s fine. Caveat emptor. But teaching students vandalism is not what I call responsible education. How can you teach students academic integrity while teaching them to disrespect the integrity of others?
Next time he wants to teach about the quality of information on the web, I have a different suggestion: He should have his students volunteer as Wikipedia editors, checking new articles for proper sourcing. In fact, maybe he should do some of that himself as an act of community service in pennance for his vandalism.