Wikipedia: A field trip to the public sphere

We’ve been talking all year about how Wikipedia is a platform for the public communication of science. Student editors have contributed nearly 2,500 science articles to Wikipedia so far this year. Those have been seen more than 80 million times.

Most of those courses are researching science topics, and contributing to the articles about those topics. Kathryn Grafton’s course at the University of British Columbia is doing something a little different.

Students in that class are looking at Wikipedia’s coverage of science, and evaluating strengths and weaknesses of the articles themselves. They’re looking to see how Wikipedia fits into knowledge mobilization: That is, how research can move from academia and into the public sphere.

Students examined science articles from a variety of perspectives. And then, they proposed changes that would address their concerns. Theory, meet practice!

One group of students examined the Wikipedia article on TED talks, noting that there was very limited criticism of their impact, or what many scholars view as an oversimplification of complicated issues for the sake of inspirational content. Another looked at the overrepresentation of Western academics as gatekeepers for knowledge, even knowledge about non-Western cultures.

Because the knowledge presented on Wikipedia is the result of discussions and conversations based on the accumulation of published history, it’s a model of the discourse that’s taking place, and has taken place. In some ways, that’s an inspiration. But it’s also deeply problematic, adopting the gaps and absences already present in academic publishing.

A Wikipedia assignment is a field trip to the public sphere. With a typical term paper, students can spend time writing and developing critiques of power and representation in the communication of knowledge. But they’re removed from the discourse itself. With a Wikipedia assignment, they can go a step further, and engage those critiques in meaningful and influential ways.

Identifying gaps in knowledge is one skill students can learn. But assignments like these show how powerful a Wikipedia assignment can be in identifying not just the gaps, but the critique of knowledge construction in general. It raises questions not just about how knowledge is presented on Wikipedia, but how Wikipedia’s knowledge reflects broader lacks and absences in the documentation of ideas.

It’s these kinds of questions that inspired our handbook for instructors, Theories: Wikipedia and the production of knowledge. The handbook shares four examples of courses that encourage students to critically evaluate Wikipedia’s role in knowledge dissemination. It comes with outlines of course assignments, recommended reading lists, and course discussion questions.

Wikipedia can be seen as a history of academia in miniature. Introducing students to its limits, and how those limits reflect broader concerns in diversity across the history of academia, is a powerful learning experience.

If you’d like more information about designing a field trip to the public sphere, we’d love to help. Reach out to us:


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