Spring 2017 survey results indicate value of teaching with Wikipedia

As the Fall 2017 term gets into full swing, Spring 2017 may already seem like a distant memory for most. But for Wiki Education, Spring 2017 was a critical term for us as we supported our largest number of courses and students to date. Our instructors and students are the foundation of our program, and what they have to say each term helps us to reflect both on what we’re doing well and what we can do differently to better serve them. That’s why each term we invite all of our participating instructors to complete a comprehensive survey.

In Spring 2017 we supported a total of 358 courses with over 7500 students. Collectively, those students added over 6 million words to Wikipedia, contributed to over 9000 articles, and created over 800 new entries. In the term alone, their work was viewed 450 million times. For comparison, we supported 215 courses in Spring 2016 and 276 in Fall 2016. Our growth has been rapid, and our instructor survey is a critical tool for us to solicit feedback from our program participants as we scale the program.

The value of a Wikipedia assignment

While there are many pedagogical dimensions to a Wikipedia assignment, perhaps most striking are the media literacy and online communication skills that our students obtain from learning to contribute to the world’s largest encyclopedia. In the survey, 94% of our instructors reported that the Wikipedia assignment was as or more effective in teaching students media literacy skills, and 98% remarked that the project was as or more effective in conveying online communication skills as compared to a traditional writing assignment. In an age where fake news is on the rise and where online communications often predominate over face-to-face interactions, it is critical that students learn to navigate an increasingly complicated media landscape.

When students contribute to Wikipedia, they learn to discern reliable sources of information from the unreliable. They begin to question the content they encounter daily online including Wikipedia itself. In the survey, one instructor shared a student’s reflection: “Throughout my schooling, teachers have always advised us against using Wikipedia. They said it ‘wasn’t a reliable source.’ I personally have grown to realize that Wikipedia is actually a quite worthy source. Articles are heavily debated and copyright is heavily monitored. I hope to continue using Wikipedia and engaging with it on a more content creator level in the future.” In becoming producers of information, our student editors learn how to better consume information as well.

What also drives our student editors to more carefully consider sources and the information they’re putting out into the world is the fact that in contributing to Wikipedia, they’re writing for a public audience. Several of our instructors remarked that the Wikipedia assignment enabled them to contextualize the broader application of the subject at hand. In the words of one instructor, “It helped me challenge students to explain things in their own words more often because I would ask questions in class and they would respond with jargon. Now that we had to think about Wikipedia content, I could then say: ‘Now, how might you convert that to a Wikipedia entry that is broadly accessible?'” Another instructor wrote that, “I was able to put the course content we were learning in dialogue with public perception of the issue at hand at all times.”

Students who contribute to Wikipedia have the opportunity to become part of a public discourse. They gain the confidence to engage with the broader intellectual community, and in doing so, develop a deep pride in their work. Instructors shared feedback they received from students about the Wikipedia assignment: “Overall, this was a good experience for me. It allowed me to make an addition to a platform which is most widely accessed on almost every subject, and that provides a sense of accomplishment.” Another student remarked, “I’m happy that I was able to contribute to the scientific community. This assignment is by far one of the most rewarding assignments I’ve ever done.”

Contributing to Wikipedia is no easy task. It forces many students out of their comfort zone, but also builds up their confidence that they too can become knowledge creators. In the words of one student, “I struggled a lot with this assignment and probably would have been more comfortable doing a more traditional paper. However I think that the mission of the project is valuable and has a larger impact than any other assignment that I have ever done. A traditional exam or paper does not have any lasting results outside of the class and the Wikipedia project helps connect people across the world with new information….”

In contributing to Wikipedia, our students ultimately develop an authoritative voice. Like every other Wikipedia editor, they have the chance to make a real and lasting impact. As one student so aptly put it, “I absolutely loved that this assignment pushed us into a new realm and finally broke that academic wall that shields our writing from the outside world.”

Countering bias and narrowing the gender gap

In 2014, Wiki Education formed a partnership with the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) to combat gender bias on Wikipedia and to bridge Wikipedia’s “gender gap.” Since that time, we’ve supported 161 courses that have tackled gender bias on Wikipedia. So far, these courses have added over 2.3 million words to Wikipedia, and their work has been viewed over 170 million times in the term alone.

We’re not only helping improve articles on a range of subjects, from reproduction to biographies of important women, but we’re giving more women the confidence to engage in online spaces, to see themselves as having an authoritative voice, and to engage in a public discourse as experts in their fields whether they contribute to gender-related subjects or not. In the words of one student, “I did not only contribute to the world of free and accessible knowledge, but I emphasized a conscious feminist approach to ensure the existence of a gender inclusive representation throughout Wikipedia’s vast database.”

For those students in courses specifically centered on gender studies, Wikipedia offers a unique opportunity to engage in an academic and real world dialogue. Wrote one student: “Something that was eye-opening for me was how I suddenly found myself linking to other articles that our class was working on. The more developed my article on [a feminist anthropologist] became, the more deeply and clearly it fit into this web of connections, all focusing around the anthropology of reproduction. I think that this demonstrates just how vital this project is. Feminist anthropologists are becoming integral voices within a whole new conversation on Wikipedia. That is one of the major takeaway points in my mind; Wikipedia really is a place for dialogue, and this dialogue has historically excluded topics concerned with women and reproduction.”

While 2.3 million words is a considerable sum, we’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to correcting Wikipedia’s gender gap. As one student put it, however, “if I had to choose between this and a more formal research paper, I would choose Wikipedia every time. Yes, it is not perfect , […] but it reflects more than any other paper the feminist ideals we so proudly boast about.”

What we learned

Spring 2017 pushed several boundaries for us from the number of students we supported to the amount of content they contributed to Wikipedia. We learned many important lessons on how to scale our program while maintaining both the quality of our support as well as the quality of those student contributions. We are deeply committed to the project of helping students develop the skills they need to make meaningful and lasting contributions to Wikipedia, and with approximately 97% of instructors indicating that they would like to teach with Wikipedia again, we know we’re on the right track.

Thank you to all of those instructors who provided us with critical feedback last term. Your reflections will continue to shape the program in the months and years to come.


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