Teaching (more than just) writing with Wikipedia

Zach McDowell, who has taught with Wikipedia at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, shares his experiences, challenges and successes with the assignment. These notes were condensed from his WikiConference USA 2015 presentation. 

I’ve been teaching with Wikipedia for going on five years now. It hasn’t always been an “easy” experience, but it has easily been the most rewarding tool I’ve used in the classroom.

Not only is Wikipedia an excellent pedagogical tool, but it’s also incredibly relevant to college students. Recently, I asked a group of 20 students if they had ever used Encyclopedia Britannica. Only one raised their hand. When I asked how many of them had used Wikipedia in the last week, all of them raised their hands. However, when I asked how many have ever edited Wikipedia, it was down to one. Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia they know. It’s where they are getting their information, ­even though few ever examine how Wikipedia works.

Not just writing, not just wikis

Wikipedia is a strong pedagogical tool for teaching writing. It forces students to cite properly, practice peer review, participate in “public” writing, and learn how to format a literature review. As articles evolve over time, students return to them, learning editing skills and understanding the writing process.

The quality of the work at the end of these classes has been, in my experience, outstanding.

Teaching with Wikipedia opens a space to teach more than just writing, or whatever ­topic might be at hand. With its collaborative and connected nature of authorship, and the systemic biases that plague many online environments, Wikipedia is an incredible place for students to learn about collective intelligence, epistemology, combating systemic biases, and digital literacy through embodied practice.

What works (incredibly well)

Teaching with Wikipedia is great for instructors, because it creates a space where students are actively engaged with nonstop peer review in a public setting. This puts them in a role of shepherd rather than dictator.

As an instructor, I have received positive feedback for these classes, resulting in teaching awards for a required class that, taught traditionally, most students find “boring.”

Students are invested in these projects. Can you imagine a student getting excited about writing an annotated bibliography? Only with Wikipedia:

“I’ve learned more in this class than many others… I’ve never done as much research as I did in this class, but it was really fun and now my work is published online.” (This student made nearly 50 citations in her article).

They get excited about their assignments, and get excited about Wikipedia too:

“Not to be over­dramatic, but [your] class changed my worldview. It was a great exercise in writing, but for me it drove home a sort of globalism that I had always understood but never really experienced before. People get annoyed when I talk about Wikipedia now because I can’t shut up about how incredible (and under appreciated) a tool it is.”

Four learnings

I started teaching Wikipedia through my interest in open­ access activism and commons­-based outreach groups. I wanted get students involved with knowledge commons. I wanted to see them invested and excited about the quality of their projects, ensuring their critical engagement with the subject matter and their daily lives. Integrating Wikipedia­-based assignments instead of traditional papers helps teach a few things at once:

1. Collective Intelligence

Wikipedia creates new ways for the students to understand ideas about the creation of knowledge and of collective intelligence. I ask my students to think about their projects as “parents,” as no parent can control the child forever. Eventually, the community takes responsibility for caretaking. This leads to interesting metaphors for writing and digital labor, but the idea is the same. The editor is not an “authoritarian” author ­type that is solely responsible for knowledge creation. They’re part of a team, albeit an important one, that helps to “birth” the article from a collection of knowledge they’ve gathered. Students find themselves relying on co­editors and peer reviewers to give extensive feedback, and contribute to the article.

2. Epistemology

Through this process, students begin to better understand epistemology (theories of knowledge) in general, seeing wiki links and bibliographies as traces of a history of the knowledge they are participating in accounting. Most students are told to “never use” Wikipedia, but by understanding how Wikipedia works, they learn that Wikipedia is often a great starting point, and to keep digging through a bibliography (as many academics do, whether in traditional papers, or even Wikipedia).

3. Digital Literacy

Wikipedia creates a space where students begin to question the validity and verifiability of information. One of the first exercises is evaluating a Wikipedia article, before they suggest edits. Through understanding how Wikipedia uses citations, and the hierarchy of knowledge, students begin to question what they use every day. Not to say that Wikipedia isn’t just as reliable than anything else (it often is), but it makes for an excellent exercise in digital literacy.

4. Countering Systemic Biases

Most students are unaware of the systemic bias problems that plague Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia remains “the encyclopedia anyone can edit,” most have never even made a small grammar correction, let alone created a username. In my courses, the majority of students are women, and find Wikipedia lacking in articles about feminist, media, and gender issues that they themselves are passionate about. After my first course, one of my students reflected in an interview, “I think that if the gender gap was advertised more, it would make women want to edit more.”

Challenges / room for improvement

Most of challenges to Writing with Wikipedia are actually not technical. Students these days “get it.” A quick training program gets them up to speed on how to edit, use Talk pages, and take part in the technical­ side of Wikipedia projects. However, students take longer to understand the community behind Wikipedia, and understanding how to write neutrally. This is true also of faculty members, but in the opposite – they often “understand” the difficulties and how to approach a new community (and how to write neutrally), but have issues with the technical side of Wikipedia. Robust training helps.

The one major hurdle for getting students involved in Wikipedia is the community. It is a big, crazy, wild community. The community is not actually the “problem” – the vast majority of users my students interacted with were kind, thoughtful, and understanding. My students understood that these were mostly volunteers that were giving them their time, and were thankful for their help.

Students simply had a hard time grokking what is happening within the community, and the crazy process behind it. This is literally a foreign community to them, and they often do not have the “intercultural” experience necessary to participate.

Folks at Wiki Ed are an incredible and invaluable resource for both instructors and students.­ I might not have made it through my first course without them, and I’m a huge geek. Understanding the Wikipedia community is complex. There are a lot of rules, suggestions, and styles that aren’t as easy to explain as the technical side of editing Wikipedia. The problem seems to lie in the structure of the community and its often confusing governance systems. Things aren’t “cut and dry” and often require extra handholding.

Wiki Ed is great for everyone

There are a lot of great things going for teaching with Wikipedia, and I’m writing this because I advocate it every chance I can. Students actually care about their projects (which, for me, is more than enough); they are learning about complex knowledge theory and digital literacy; they’re combating systemic biases on the world’s largest (and free) encyclopedia. It isn’t perfect — is anything? But folks at the Wiki Education Foundation are working to actively improve it.

Community ties are growing stronger, training is getting more robust, and tools are getting stronger for organizing and evaluating work. Teaching with Wikipedia is good for everyone ­— students, teachers, and Wikipedia —­ and is getting better all the time.

Photo:Zach McDowell at the National Archives” by Eryk (Wiki Ed)Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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