Wikipedia offers a solution for teaching critical media literacy

“I call my senators, I vote, I donate to the ACLU, and now, I edit Wikipedia.”

Students lack the critical media skills they need to navigate our increasingly digital society. That’s what Stanford Graduate School of Education determined in their 2016 study of media literacy in youth. Participating students were unable to identify credible sources online, to distinguish advertisements from news articles, or to understand where information came from. That’s a problem.

In Literacy Worldwide, Dr. Susan Luft asks teachers to prepare their students to be the “prosumers” (both producers and consumers) of information that they need to be in the digital age. “While putting our efforts into teaching students the craft, ethics, and responsibilities in producing media, we must also teach them to become skilled consumers of information, discerning fact from fiction at every turn or click of a hyperlink.”

Whether or not a foundation for students’ media literacy skills was set in high school, college-level instructors have the opportunity to further round out those skills. Instructors taking this opportunity not only better prepare students for future courses, but also for life as critically thinking employees and citizens.

How Wikipedia factors in

Wikipedia is a critical source of information on the internet. And what student hasn’t heard the old caveat that they shouldn’t trust the information they find there? It’s something instructors say a lot. But we all use Wikipedia (it’s the fifth most visited site in the world!). So instead of advising against it, why not teach students the skills they need to identify where its content is accurate and where it is not?

While Wikipedia has gained a much stronger reputation for reliability since its inception in 2001 (Youtube is now linking to it in videos that spread misinformation, for example), there are still content gaps that need remedying, especially for academic topics.  That’s where a Wikipedia assignment is a great catch-all. Students learn how to comb the site for inaccurate or missing information related to their course topic, and they employ research and writing skills to remedy the issues themselves.

What students think of the assignment

After Dr. Jennifer Glass‘ students at Georgia Institute of Technology created and expanded Wikipedia pages as an assignment, they self-reported numerous important learning outcomes – including new skills for identifing reputable information online.

“Wikipedia in general has a reputation for being unreliable,” reflected one student. “But when I actually read through the article, I found this to be true only for information that did not have citations.”

“Over the course of the semester they realized Wikipedia is more credible than they originally thought,” said Dr. Glass. “But they also know they have to be careful that the topic they’re reading has citations. Now they will look at Wikipedia articles they read, look for citations, and check what kind of citations.”

How Wikipedia inspires digital citizenship

Media literacy skills gathered through Wikipedia editing can equip students to be active consumers of information. Those skills help prepare students to identify fake news. Students may also be inspired to engage more actively in the information landscape. As Rice University student Katie Webber wrote about her experience of a Wikipedia assignment,

“To have some concrete thing that I feel like I can really do right now has made me really feel more confident that I can find other ways to create change going forward. I call my senators, I vote, I donate to the ACLU, and now, I edit Wikipedia.”

Technology is a powerful tool for students to engage with their digital landscape, their communities, and ultimately their future. Understanding how technological tools affect society is what makes an effective and responsible digital citizen.

Students who complete a Wikipedia assignment in their classroom feel like they have done something that matters. As we’ve seen before, when students see their work has an impact beyond the classroom, they are motivated to produce better work and are more likely to carry that work beyond their course. And according to a 2018 Strada and Gallup study, students are also more likely to report that their education has been worth the cost when they see that their schoolwork is relevant to their lives and chosen career paths.

Student learning objectives achieved

Critical media literacy is a learning outcome that is relevant across academia. We’ve supported instructors in all disciplines, including engineering, political science, rhetoric, earth science, biotech, history, law, media studies, psychology, gender and women’s studies, and more.

“Writing for Wikipedia allows students to develop critical skills for communication in the digital age. What platform is better for teaching that writing is a public activity with ethical consequences?” says Dr. Gerald Lucas of Middle Georgia State University.

“Working with Wiki Education opens up possibilities for how we teach, how that teaching engages the world, what our students accomplish in the classroom, and what kinds of conversations we can have about critical issues related to humanities and digital culture,” says Dr. Matthew Vetter of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “I want students to be more than consumers of media. I want them to be active producers and critics of discourse and culture. I want them to understand that language shapes the world, that they need to understand that process, and participate in it. I try to do this by making critical learning and thinking come alive through innovative and consequential writing assignments. Working with Wikipedia is one of the best ways I’ve found to make this kind of pedagogy happen.”

Interested in adapting a Wikipedia assignment to fit your course? Visit for all you need to know to get started.


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