Lecturer wins award for inspiring research

Old maps prove a rich source of information for geography students

An inspired idea by a University of Portsmouth geographer has resulted in the University winning a top award for making knowledge more accessible.

Professor Humphrey Southall set his first year geography students the task of finding out more about villages in England whose entries on Wikipedia amounted to just one or two sentences. They then had to update the Wikipedia pages.

Professor Southall was presented with the award for UK Educational Institution of the Year 2014 by Wikipedia’s co-founder, Jimmy Wales, in recognition of work which organisers said had “gone above and beyond the call of duty to help bring open knowledge to all”.

Professor Southall said: “I’m very pleased Portsmouth students at the beginning of their academic lives have been recognised for unearthing the rich history of numerous villages in England.”

Winner: Professor Humphrey Southall was given the UK Educational Institution of the Year 2014 award by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales

It is the third year running Professor Southall has set the task to those studying for a BA in geography. So far, over 200 articles have been greatly added to by the students’ research.

He said: “In another couple of years we may run out of English villages that have not been written about, but we are now working on a global web site about places that also links to Wikipedia, so we will have plenty more to write about.”

To pass, each student is given a different Wikipedia article about a village containing no more than a couple of sentences. Their task is to do sufficient research to allow them to write a 1,000+ words rounded description of the place and an account of its historical development.

Professor Southall said: “We deliberately use parishes far from Portsmouth which the students don’t know, so this is all about researching using online sources, not observing.

“Someone with real local knowledge could do a better job, at least on what the village is currently like, but we work only on pages for villages which have not been updated or added to for at least a year.”

One of the pages now full of detailed historical information thanks to a single student’s work is the village of Sawley in Yorkshire.

The student’s research resulted in the original single 24-word sentence about the village being turned into a rich archive detailing its history and fortunes.

The new account includes, for example, that the village is thought to have been the main source of stone for the construction of the 10th century Fountains Abbey, a World Heritage site two miles away. The village, like many, was once home mainly to low paid agricultural workers, but today the average detached house price is more than £400,000, telling a story repeated across England.

Sites the students use to research little-known places include:

Professor Southall has previously won recognition for his historical research projects, including his Old Maps Online website being voted one of the top 100 websites for future generations by UK librarians: http://uopnews.port.ac.uk/2013/04/10/map-collection-is-one-of-top-100-websites/

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Well done to Professor Southall – what an interesting article and what a clever idea – intertwining academia with the (often) first source of reference, Wikipedia.

  2. Exxcellent news! I’ve seen similar exercises done in the US, but never here; I’d often wondered how I could bring a similar exercise into my units, but couldn’t think of a relevant topic in my area.
    Is there a list of all the villages that have been ‘done’? I’ve just looked up two villages in the East Midlands that I grew up in, but their entries were updated over several years, so presumably not by his students.

  3. For the first twp years we ran the course all the information about it, including the lists of villages, was held on the univerrsity’s virtual learning environment, which is not accessible from outside. However, this spring we also had our own page about the course on Wikipedia, which includes likes to all the individual articles this year’s students worked on:


    We only work on the minority of articles/villages which have been a bit neglected by others, which tend to be the smaller ones. so the odds are that they will not be villages you know.

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