Initiative is the first of its kind at the University

From left to right: Omar Orbegozo Zavala, Kira Perlman, Jeanie Morry and Allyson Trainor
From left to right: Omar Orbegozo Zavala, Kira Perlman, Jeanie Morry and Allyson Trainor

Wikipedia offers a treasure trove of information on a wide variety of topics. However, it has long been understood that it is not always as complete as it could be, with entries that contain misinformation, science-related information not based on scientific facts, poorly organized or source entries, and some entries that are essentially empty.

Dr. Nicole Li-Jessen, an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University decided to do her part to rectify this. The first course at McGill to participate in a Wikipedia-supported WikiEdu initiative, Li-Jessen identified seven articles that she thought needed work and tasked the speech language pathology students in her graduate-level voice disorder course with addressing them.

Four of those students – Omar Orbegozo Zavala, Kira Perlman, Jeanie Morry and Allyson Trainor – decided to tackle the entry on transgender voice therapy. “Some of the entries, like the one on nodules for example, we already saw extensively in class,” explains Omar on what drew him to this topic. “As far as I knew this was a topic that we were not going to see in class, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about it.” The rest of the group had similar reasons for choosing this topic, with Jeanie having had a previous experience sitting in with a client undergoing transgender voice therapy while volunteering with a speech language pathologist and wanting to learn more.

Unlike many of the other topics that their classmates covered, one of the challenges the four faced was the dearth of a comparable amount of existing research for a topic that is still considered relatively new. “Topics like nodules or laryngitis, they’ve been researched for so long that if you go to see a doctor they can likely point you in the right direction,” says Omar. “But with transgender issues, not every doctor knows how to deal with them and it’s an issue that is constantly changing as therapies continue to be studied, so the information is not always very clear.”

Grappling with technology

Having selected their topic, the students needed to learn how to use Wikipedia before they could do anything. “We did tutorials and had to learn how to use the Wikipedia sandbox, how to properly edit, how to link to other Wikipedia pages – a lot of technical things that you wouldn’t normally be expecting to learn in our Speech Language Pathology Program,” says Jeanie.

Kira found herself nervous at first with the technical aspects because, she says, “I’m not technologically savvy, but one I was doing it I realized that it actually wasn’t that hard at all.”

Once comfortable with the technology, the students set out to translate the research they did into the page. “At first it was tempting to build off of what was already there,” says Jeanie. “But we quickly realized it was so bad – some of the sources were actually blog posts for example – that we had to start from scratch.”

Unlike a typical academic assignment, the group had to consider that what they wrote had to be accessible to the average person. “We had to write the entry for the public so it also helped us learn how to translate more clinical or scientific knowledge that we were learning into language that would be accessible for anybody who wanted to learn more about it,” says Allyson. “That’s really important when you’re talking to somebody in a face to face setting or in a clinical setting, being able to explain things in a way they can understand it.”

“I thought this assignment was really excellent because now our work is being looked at and appreciated by people out there in the world,” explains Jeanie. “It’s not just a paper that’s sitting on our professor’s desk that was read by one person. It’s helpful for people who are interested in the topic and also for other speech language pathologists who may not see transgender clients regularly on their case load. They may just get one once in a while and they need a refresher, so it’s nice to be able to go to this resource that you can trust that was written by people who did good, solid research behind it.”

A satisfying class assignment

“I definitely enjoyed it in the end and I’m really proud of our article,” says Kira of the assignment.  The four agree that the assignment helped them develop a deep understanding of the topic as a result of having to take the technical information gleaned from research papers and put it into everyday language. While they focused on their topic, and may not have learned as much about the other six topics, the students are happy knowing that the articles are all on Wikipedia. “We can go to other people’s articles and get the knowledge on their topics,” says Jeanie. “I’ve already used them for another assignment.”

“I think that the way Dr. Li-Jessen is teaching her courses is awesome,” shares Allyson. “Especially the way that she’s really trying to get as much advocacy and awareness and actually going out into the public and making events or days for people to learn more about things.” The Wikipedia article itself was a form of advocacy, as the original article contained only one or two mentions of a speech language pathologist’s role in transgender voice therapy. “Now we can show that, actually, we have a massive role. It’s a good way to get more knowledge of your field out to the public as well, which is important for anyone in the health care system.”

The nature of Wikipedia and the topics, ensure that the exercise can be repeated with future groups of students as well. “We tried to cover a good base, but there are so many other things that can be added,” explains Kira.  “For example, we added the whole therapeutic treatment section and we touched on quite a few topics but there are many things for example in relation to raising and lowering pitch, you can work on prosody and body language and all these things we didn’t get to talk about so I think there’s a lot of room for expansion.”

In the end the assignment will also prove valuable as the students graduate and move into clinical settings and working with clients. “I noticed there were a lot of issues that I hadn’t really thought about within the realm of transitioning,” says Omar. “It was good to learn about some of these issues they face that I was not aware of. It gives me a better idea of what people transitioning are going through. As a Speech Pathologist if I do have any clients transitioning I’ll have a better idea of what their needs will be thanks to this assignment.”

March 23, 2017