Changing students and the world: why instructors continue to teach with Wikipedia

Term after term, virtually all of the instructors who participate in our Classroom Program (between 97 and 99%) indicate that they will run another Wikipedia assignment in the near future. While we’re happy to report this success year after year, a far more interesting story is why so many instructors adopt the Wikipedia assignment as a main-stay of their courses. Incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into a course can be daunting. Contributing to Wikipedia is unfamiliar to most instructors and students. It’s technically demanding, and Wikipedia policies can be overwhelming. While the challenges of running a Wikipedia assignment are not to be understated, the rewards are manifold as our instructors and students conveyed in the Spring 2018 Instructor Survey.

Several of our instructors remarked that when students contribute to Wikipedia, they don’t simply gain expertise in a subject area, but they feel like experts. According to two different instructors, “They were able to see themselves as knowledgeable about topics they cared deeply about, and use that to guide their editing. This led to increased self efficacy.” “Students were behaving like real scholars; it was a pleasure to watch.”

When students contribute to Wikipedia, they’re accountable for their work in a way they rarely encounter with the traditional term paper. It’s this accountability that confers a feeling of expertise onto students. Students know that their work could potentially be viewed by millions, and as a result, are motivated to get it right. In the words of one instructor, “Students really enjoy that their ‘paper’ ends up helping people rather than collecting dust in my drawer. It really motivates them to be their best self.”

Nerve-wracking as this new level of accountability may be, students gain a great sense of pride and confidence in their own abilities as scholars when they contribute to Wikipedia. As one instructor put it, “They have gained so much confidence as they make the knowledge they acquire via their research their own.” Though the topic they explore may be obscure, Wikipedia is a name that all students know intimately. “Because all students use it so extensively,” noted one instructor, “it is the one place they can truly contribute to the field in a way they already understand and appreciate.”

As experts in any profession will tell you, rarely is a project turned in and never to be reviewed or revisited again. Expertise is often a collaborative process that requires broad knowledge of a field as well as highly focused understanding of a specialized topic. “From contributing to Wikipedia,” remarked one student in our Classroom Program, “I learned that writing should be a continuous editing process, and is not finite. Writing should be done in phases, and not in one sitting. This project helped me realize that there are always improvements to be made to my writing.”

The Wikipedia assignment prepares students for how projects will likely be conducted in their future careers. In the words of an instructor, “The Wikipedia assignment is extremely helpful for students to encounter real world feedback on their work. As a student in a former class put it, “those Wikipedians don’t play. If your stuff is weak, they’ll delete.” It helps them understand what the measure of professional work is.

Throughout their academic careers, students are taught and expected to write persuasively. The traditional term paper should contain a thesis that the student devises by drawing conclusions from disparate sources of information. When contributing to Wikipedia, students are challenged to do the opposite. They are to report “just the facts,” and simply summarize sources rather than combine them into one overarching argument. According to one student, “Other essays usually had me reading one or two major sources and then arguing a point, while for my article I had to gather facts from all over and present them to someone unfamiliar to the topic in an unbiased manner.”

Far from depriving students of a chance to think critically about a subject, the Wikipedia assignment allows students to examine a topic with an integrative lens. As one instructor wrote, “One thing I found was the students were better able to make connections between topics than they are in other assignments. Taking information from one task and using it to add content to a tangentially related Wikipedia article without prompting happened on multiple occasions.” Another instructor wrote, “Students can often be intimidated by content and as a consequence resort to memorization and regurgitation. The nature of editing Wikipedia requires integrative thought and careful consideration of the manner in which ideas are communicated.”

Learning how to communicate ideas in an unbiased manner teaches students how to examine bias in their own argumentation. They begin to think of how they as authors incorporate bias into their own writing and how to discern bias in the writing of others. “I think that Wikipedia definitely got my students critically thinking about information access, bias and opinions in presenting information, and how to present science information effectively to a general public,” remarked one instructor.

While most of our students do not contribute to Wikipedia on an ongoing basis, the Wikipedia assignment allows them to, even if just for a few months, develop an authoritative voice and to grapple with both the responsibility and rewards that come with sharing information with the public at large. As usual, our students put it best. “I’m very glad that we did the Wikipedia assignment. I love papers, but I like to feel as if I’m contributing to something of some importance beyond the classroom, whether that means looking for publication or something else along those lines. I love that I can go onto Wikipedia and see my work looking right back at me, knowing that anyone else in the world who looks this up will see the same thing.”

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