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Wanting to Share Visalia: Our Wiki Entry

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 19, 2006

Wanting to Share Visalia: Our Wiki Entry

Nobody seems to know how to say “Visalia” or “Tulare” when I travel. I explain where I am from by mentioning Fresno and Bakersfield, but it turns out most people have no real understanding of where those cities are, either.

“How close are you to Los Angeles or San Francisco?” people asked me at the “Computers and Writing” conference in Lubbock. The intention of the gathering was to share ways to better include technology in meaningful classroom assignments, so I turned on my laptop and headed for some familiar Web sites.

“It’s surrounded by farmland,” I tried to explain. “And on a clear day, you can see the Sierras.”

I turned to Google Earth to show satellite images of farmland. That still didn’t do the trick. The Texans wanted more information if I was going to claim some place in California was anything like Lubbock. “Just show me the entry on Wiki,” a Texas Tech professor suggested.

Also known as “Wiki” by fans, Wikipedia proudly calls itself “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Therein lies the reason I ask my English students to avoid using Wiki: “anyone” doesn’t necessarily mean an expert edits each entry.

The most famous case of Wikipedia inaccuracy was when the article on John Seigenthaler, Sr., stated the former aid to Robert Kennedy was suspected of involvement in the assassination of president Kennedy. The article had been edited as a hoax, complete with claims that Seigenthaler had supported the Soviet Union. At the other extreme, the aids of many politicians, including Diane Feinstein’s staff, have been caught editing entries to be more favorable.

A review by the journal Nature found science articles on Wikipedia were no less accurate than articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As one scientist noted — the finding was less good news for Wiki than bad news for the encyclopedia publishers. Neither was an ideal source of information, which might change as more experts try to correct and expand Wiki entries.

Resorting to Wiki to explain Visalia and Tulare County was disappointing. It didn’t prove the temperatures were warm, like Lubbock, or that Visalia has a real “Western” heritage. While I didn’t notice any glaring errors, it was because there wasn’t that much information in the entry. The Wikipedia entry mentions Visalia’s population, Nathaniel Vise, and Kevin Costner’s tribute to the Visalia Oaks in the movie Bull Durham, but the article doesn’t really explain the essence of Tulare County or Visalia.

As I tried to explain that Visalia is a lot more interesting that the short Wiki entry suggests, I realized there are possible solutions. After all, I was at a conference on writing and the Internet. What I had thought was the weakness of Wiki was really its strength. Any local historians could rescue our entry in Wikipedia. Maybe some hero would step forward to tell the world our story. Local volunteers could add content to the entry on what makes us special today by adding information on the arts and local events.

I am now intrigued by the possibilities for student involvement. Instead of telling students to avoid Wiki, maybe we should be teaching them how to conduct research and improve Wiki entries.

For the Visalia and Tulare County entries, High school classes could work together to improve the content while learning about history, economics, geography, and more. Wiki entries for other cities discuss native wildlife, weather, and leading products. Imagine the excitement of students knowing their research was online for the world to see. We have many outstanding educators who can integrate writing assignments with Wiki, demonstrating to students that writing well matters when the whole world can read your words.

This project could go beyond Wiki and evolve into a virtual text on the Central Valley. Wiki encourages links to more detailed information. Other cities have links to complete online histories and even virtual slide shows. A main Tulare County history Web site could link to presentations on the various communities, which would include links to official city pages, non-profit organizations, and businesses. By starting with updates to the Wiki entries for our county and communities, students would be teaching others about our wonderful Central Valley.

I’m passionate about using the Web to promote Visalia, Tulare County, and the entire San Joaquin Valley. Tourists should be staying in our communities and enjoying our hospitality as they pass through to Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Conferences should be clamoring to meet somewhere so pleasant in the early spring months. And, yes, businesses should be thinking about how wonderful our location is, right in the heart of California.

The real selling point is that we could brag that our students wrote and edited these online resources. We can demonstrate what is possible with Wiki when it is used wisely in classrooms. Any business wondering about what type of graduates our schools produce would be impressed. Then, I’d have one more thing to brag about when I travel.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visalia,_California

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