Wikipedia’s place in higher education

Alliana Drury is a first year undergraduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In the Spring 2019 term, she took an English 101: Composition 1 course, taught by Dr. Matt Vetter and Teaching Assistant Oksana Moroz, and learned to contribute to Wikipedia as a major assignment in that course. In the following essay, she reflects on her experience and illustrates how participation in the encyclopedia can be helpful for writing growth.

Consistently, in both secondary and higher education contexts, many students including myself were told that Wikipedia has no place in the classroom and that it was not allowed to be used as a source because it was unreliable. I find this argument abhorrent and outdated; I feel as if it should be integrated into classrooms at any level of education. In this blog contribution, I discuss why Wikipedia belongs in higher education and how my experiences and reading of other’s experiences have taught me this. While it may seem like an unorthodox way to learn about writing, editing and adding to Wikipedia can help writers grow and develop their writing skills in many ways. My experience editing the article on Fender Telecaster, a popular model of guitar, in my first year English course especially helped me understand how Wikipedia offers opportunities for practicing and learning about writing in four specific knowledge domains: procedural (process) knowledge; social knowledge about the writing community; rhetorical knowledge; and genre knowledge. 

Every writer has a writing process, whether that be listening to music while drafting, or putting their ideas in a certain place before writing. But as Anne Lamott so eloquently put it, every writer starts their process with “Shitty First Drafts.” Over the years, even throughout my high school years, I would write my first draft, make corrections to grammar, and then submit it to my teacher without a second thought. A lack of procedural knowledge damaged my writing, as I never really drafted my work anywhere before learning how to work with Wikipedia. Throughout this process in English 101 this year, I worked in Microsoft Word, then the Wikipedia Sandbox, and then finally, put my work out to the world by publishing it. This process has refined my writing in a way I didn’t know it could, especially through the research I did. The research was done through different sources than I usually would have used in past classes and projects. Since my work was being published and was not just for the classroom, it had to be professional and well written. It helped me stylistically, by forcing me to reread what I had written and similar to this essay, reflect on my work and make me think about it. Also, allowing myself to write a sloppy first draft, I was given ideas for how to improve the article through my own work and thought process. In her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott describes her process for returning to a first draft, writing: “The next day, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in” (2). Wikipedia has given me a new lease on my own writing process and made me a better writer overall. From now on I am going to actually take time to write out my thoughts and organize them before writing a final draft, especially with things that are being published for many people to see, such as Wikipedia. I have now seen firsthand how organizing, making multiple copies of a draft and reviewing my own work can be very beneficial to my writing and help me to become a more professional writer. 

Another aspect of writing for Wikipedia that is very beneficial for those in higher education is, it added to my social knowledge of writing. For example, when I go out into the real world and get a job, not everything will be opinion based in that writing community. I will have to write factual reports and other styles of writing that involve only factual information. There are arguments against Wikipedia’s factual content being beneficial for students. For example, in “The Case Against Wikipedia in the Classroom,” Todd Pettigrew asserts that, “Students should learn how to build arguments, not write entries.” I wholeheartedly disagree with this conclusion. I find this to be a close-minded view on writing in general. Students are going to be exposed to many genres of writing in their lifetimes. It is unfair to just make them write in one genre while they are getting their education, especially one that they are paying for. Writing for Wikipedia introduces students to a new genre and rhetoric of writing that will benefit them now and in the future. 

Wikipedia is not always correct, but it is always reliable. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, making it a diverse source that covers a topic from many sources found by a large group of people. 

Some complain about this, because it might allow editors to vandalize or add deliberately false information to an article. One notable example of the latter involved Brian Chase’s experimental edit to the Wikipedia article on John Seigenthaler, a former journalist and political advisor. As discussed by James Purdy, “Brian Chase changed the article to indicate that Seigenthaler played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. This untrue contribution lasted for 132 days” (207). While things like this do unfortunately happen on Wikipedia, it is no reason to throw it away as a source of information altogether. At the bottom of every article, especially on more popular topics, there is a section for the sources that were put into article. This is a good place to start for research, as sources for Wikipedia have to be considered notable and factual to stay in the article. It is on the writer themselves to fact check the information that they are getting from Wikipedia and the aforementioned sources are a reliable place to begin. 

Wikipedia gives students a chance to conduct research on a free, reliable website. This could be a lifesaver to low income students. There are no fees associated with the encyclopedia. Even if the student does not have internet, they can go to a local library to use a computer to access this encyclopedia. As a college student, this is important to me because going to school is the most expensive thing I have done and most college students, along with myself, have no money to be paying for loads of online knowledge bases with. While this may not be an issue at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with the extensive library research bases provided, many smaller institutions or online schools may not give access to these paid online services or have a physical library directly at their school to get books loaned from other libraries. I have found Wikipedia to be a reliable resource of information and the sheer amount of information that everyone has access to for free is astounding to me. 

With the world being so reliant on the internet and instant gratification for information, Wikipedia is a great resource. The information in Wikipedia articles is constantly changing and being updated by editors as it happens. It is almost like an unbiased news outlet, which is invaluable in this day and age of political turmoil and unrest. This current generation, especially higher education students, live for up to date information and the print versions of encyclopedias can’t keep up with ones that have integrated an online service. Even though some encyclopedias or databases have made changes and are now accessible through the internet, they are not updated as quickly as Wikipedia. On these databases, a professional editor on the specific topic has to be consulted and not anyone can edit the articles, so it takes more time. Overall, Wikipedia is a good source for what is happening in the here and now in the world of instantaneous new updates and instant gratification.  

“Go green” is a slogan widely taken to heart by today’s college students. Wikipedia does just this with their online only profile. Since it is constantly being updated and has over 5,838,957 articles in just the English language, there is no way a print version of this for the masses could even be feasible. While other encyclopedias are putting more of their resources online, for the most part, they still sell print versions of their material. This could be seen as a condemnable offense by many of today’s higher education students who are studying in fields that are trying to save the environment. While this is a small part of why Wikipedia is very valuable to students in today’s world, it goes a long way in the minds of students. 

Being a transfer student last semester, I had absolutely zero clue that my English class could be about Wikipedia. I have come to appreciate Wikipedia and writing in general through the four knowledge domains discussed in class over the semester. First of all, there is procedural knowledge, which I discussed earlier in this essay. I wrote about how my writing has gotten better and I now understand that my first draft being the final draft is not acceptable, especially for something with an audience the size of Wikipedia’s. I also learned that every writer has bad first drafts and that is okay. The second knowledge domain discussed in class was social knowledge. I gained this through working in Wikipedia because of the community on the website. They have a specific way to write about things and even within the website, there are discourse communities in which there is a certain standard of writing and knowledge required to write about a topic. The third knowledge domain I learned about was rhetorical knowledge. This was a tricky one for me to understand at first, but after writing in Wikipedia I understand the principle behind this. I learned how to write for Wikipedia’s rhetorical situation and what level of professionalism is expected of Wikipedians; it is a high level, and if one does not follow it, their article will most likely be edited, reverted to how it was, or deleted depending on the subject and the amount of attention it gets from editors. The final knowledge domain I learned about this semester was genre knowledge. This was interesting to me because I had never written anything for the encyclopedia genre that Wikipedia is formatted in. It is factual and formal; unlike some other work I had done in previous classes. 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed working in Wikipedia. I had my doubts about a Wikipedia centered class, but they are long gone. While teaching students about Wikipedia may seem odd to some, I believe that it is a great opportunity for students in higher education to learn about many different facets of writing. I learned about the writing process, social knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, genre knowledge, and procedural knowledge. I also know that Wikipedia is free to use, doesn’t use paper copies, is reliable, and is up to date for the current generation who want instant news. Wikipedia is a great source of knowledge and I would say that a teacher who goes against it is foolish to not let their students utilize such an amazing resource. Wikipedia belongs in all education, but especially higher education. 

Work Cited
Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Ed. by Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 93-96, First Drafts.pdf. Accessed 28 March 2019.
Pettigrew, Todd. “The Case Against Wikipedia in the Classroom.” Maclean’s, Accessed 18 March 2019.
Purdy, James. “Wikipedia Is Good For You!?” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Vol. 1, edited by. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, Parlour Press, 2010. 205-224,—wikipedia-is-good-for-you.pdf. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Header image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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