Writing a Wikipedia article — the student’s perspective

It’s rare to see a student excited to discover an underdeveloped Wikipedia article — but this was the initial reaction of College of DuPage freshman Stephanie Lemm this spring, when she looked up the “Educational entertainment” article. That’s because it was a topic that interested her immensely, and her English professor, Dr. Timothy Henningsen, had assigned Stephanie and her classmates to research and write a Wikipedia article as a class assignment with support from Wiki Education.

Stephanie immediately approached Dr. Henningsen with the topic, got approval, and jumped right in. All the while, she took notes along the way, which she turned into a long blog post detailing her experiences.

“I was a bit overconfident at the start in regards to actually contributing to Wikipedia,” Stephanie wrote about her initial reaction. “I thought my experience of publishing my own peculiar content on this blog to viewers across six continents and thirty countries would give me an upper hand on the situation, and would make me feel comfortable publishing my research for others to see and collaborating with other Wikipedia contributors. Well, I was wrong.”

Stephanie says the Wikipedia project caused her to think through the construction of knowledge — and how the choice of sources is crucial. She learned to think critically about the authors, publication forum, recency of publication, and biases in sources, and to prioritize scholarly journal articles and books as sources. In fact, she reflects, she even was able to view different types of books critically, eliminating ones that didn’t have enough extensive coverage of her topic to be cited in the Wikipedia article. These critical thinking and media literacy skills are something that research shows students gain from Wikipedia assignments.

Using Wiki Education’s training resources, evaluating other articles, and talking with classmates, Stephanie learned how to contribute to Wikipedia — and learned more about the art of research and writing than she would have otherwise with a traditional assignment.

“My professor emphasized the complexities and importance of knowledge toward the start of the semester, and doing so boosted my motivation to conduct the best research and produce the best and most clear writing I could,” Stephanie told us. “This assignment is a unique opportunity for students, so it should be framed as one with purpose; that way, if any of the students are presented with challenges, they should feel compelled to adapt as well as possible. I personally have been trying to make all of my classes have the same kind of impact on me (and maybe others as well) both inside and outside of the classroom setting ever since I started contributing to Wikipedia, and I hope other instructors will inspire the same results.”

Stephanie spent time thinking critically about how the article was organized, what sections were missing, and how best to integrate her changes to make it a more full coverage of the topic. She edited some of the existing content, as well as restructuring elements of the article and adding two sections, “Effects in the classroom” and “Criticism”. In all, Stephanie added more than 4,000 words of content to the article.

Along the way, she got some feedback from other Wikipedians — first in the format of a warning that the images she’d used in the article were not free content, even though she’d found them on Wikimedia Commons. When interacting with a community member about it, she learned about copyright — and a valuable lesson on working collaboratively in public.

“By learning to deal with criticism (and realizing that changes to my work due to collaboration does not equate to being seen as completely ‘wrong’), I now think that I am better prepared to be a contributor to the fields I pursue in the future,” Stephanie wrote in her post.

Stephanie, who is studying hospitality management, sees the incredible value in contributing content to Wikipedia, and plans to continue improving articles as a volunteer, even though her class assignment has wrapped up. She’s already started researching the history of a Chicago hotel, and sees the potential to connect other work she’s already doing to Wikipedia.

“I am starting to accept and embrace the fact that under any circumstances and their corresponding levels of activity and feedback, producing work that I can stand behind in the first place and adapting from then on will help me grow and become a dynamic contributor,” Stephanie told us.

For a full ethnographic description of Stephanie’s experience, check out her excellent blog post.

Interview with Stephanie Lemm by Adam Hyland; blog text by LiAnna Davis. Image: Photo of Stephanie L, CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.


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