Wikipedia assignments as active learning

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has declared today “Active Learning Day.” As passionate advocates of active learning in higher education, we couldn’t be more excited! You could say that we’re participating in an Active Learning year.

After all, teaching with Wikipedia is the very definition of an active learning experience. As defined by OSTP, Active Learning means:

  • Authentic scientific research or engineering or software design in the classroom to help students understand the practice of science, technology, and engineering and promote deep learning of the subject matter;
  • Interactive computer activities to support students’ exposure to trial-and-error and promote deep learning;
  • Discussions to encourage collaboration and idea exchange among students; and
  • Writing to generate original ideas and solidify knowledge.

Let’s look at how Wikipedia assignments fit in.

Authentic scientific research

Writing for Wikipedia follows the same practices as academic publishing, on an open-access scale. Students dive into libraries to explore the background of a topic, compiling a bibliography that reflects careful thinking about the reliability of sources. Students build what is equivalent to a literature review for an academic research paper, and then share that background context with Wikipedia. That writing is even peer reviewed — either by their peers in the classroom, or by their peers in the volunteer Wikipedia community.

The process is an introduction to the rigors of writing for academia, in a way that many students wouldn’t be able to achieve in an undergraduate year. They learn how the consensus around accepted knowledge is build (and even how to critique that consensus). It’s a window into the practice of science.

Promoting deep learning

Of course, writing for Wikipedia helps students develop computer skills. But the value of a Wikipedia assignment goes far beyond that. It asks students to adapt their learning to a variety of new, engaging activities, strengthening that knowledge by testing it in novel contexts. They read existing articles, comparing what’s presented with what they know. They fact check, they look for absences and gaps in knowledge, and they think about the resources they have at hand that could fix those gaps. At every twist and turn, they are comparing and contrasting knowledge in new and meaningful ways. And then, they’re thinking about how to communicate that knowledge — and where it came from.

Collaboration and exchange

When students edit Wikipedia, they can’t simply point to their textbook and say, “because it says so.” They need to closely consider the source of their knowledge and think about what makes it important. But they also have to think about how to convey that to others. Students will collaborate with their peers in the classroom, but they’ll also be called into discussions with Wikipedia’s volunteers, who reflect a different perspective from those of a college student. In many cases, all of these groups develop an understanding of how to move forward and improve an article on Wikipedia. It’s a collaboration that transcends the classroom, and it creates knowledge that transcends the classroom, too.

Solidifying knowledge

Writing for Wikipedia calls upon students to write in their own words. That means developing their own understanding of the material they’re going to share. It demands a solid understanding of the topic at hand, shared in a way that others can understand, too.

Get involved!

We’d love to help you get started with this powerful active learning opportunity. Wiki Ed has online and print resources that empower students to start making meaningful contributions right away. You keep full control over your course content, and our staff, tools and resources help students navigate Wikipedia.

Intrigued? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out to us:

Photo: Learning is Hanging Out by Alan Levine, CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.


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