In the spring 2020 academic term, higher education around the world shifted from in-person to virtual classes. The University of British Columbia was no exception, but for students in Dr. Shona Ellis’s Morphology and Evolution of Bryophytes class, the switch wasn’t as challenging as it could’ve been, because a key assignment was to improve a Wikipedia article. The Wikipedia assignment, done through Wiki Education’s Student Program, lent itself naturally to the virtual learning environment, student Geoff Lau says.
“It was already an independent project so we didn’t need to spend class time on it, and Dr. Ellis was really good about giving us enough time to ask questions about the assignment and do the research,” he says. “We knew the details of this assignment about halfway into the course and it wasn’t due until the end, so we had a lot of time to prepare. Another great feature was that Dr. Ellis was able to monitor our progress online, so she knew exactly where we were at in the assignment.”
Monitoring progress is something that happens through Wiki Education’s Dashboard software, where Dr. Ellis could see Geoff and his classmates’ work. For Geoff, that was creating the new article on a genus of mosses called Ulota.
How did Geoff pick Ulota? Funny story: He was collecting specimens of bryophytes for another class assignment, and thought he’d nabbed a Ulota specimen. Turns out the specimen in question actually wasn’t, but it caused Geoff to realize Wikipedia was missing the article on Ulota, so when he was picking his topic, he knew just which genus to add.
“I quickly did some background searches to check how many scientific journal articles had been published about the genus, and what species had been examined in detail,” Geoff says. “It turned out that there had actually been quite a lot of studies published on this genus so I decided to write my assignment about it.”
This pre-writing research work is what sets student editors up for success in Wikipedia assignments. Since Wikipedia requires that all information added be cited to a reliable source, student editors like Geoff not only need to identify topics that need expansion — they also need to ensure sufficient reference materials exist to expand it. In finding reference materials, Geoff had to also dig into taxonomy for his particular topic.
“Ulota is tightly intertwined with Orthotrichum, another genus of mosses, so when I was sifting through the literature, it was important that I find articles that are recent enough to address taxonomic shifts,” he says. “Some species had been placed originally in Ulota, then into Orthotrichum, and some species had originally been placed in Orthotrichum, then into Ulota. I wanted to make sure the species I was looking at was placed in the right group first, so I had to do a little digging into recent phylogenies and taxonomic shifts. Luckily, there were several papers on the phylogeny of this genus so it helped a lot.”
Geoff succeeded, adding 26 references to his brand-new article. He also added a handful of freely licensed images he found on Wikimedia Commons. Throughout the assignment, he found himself learning new skills, from using Wikipedia’s sandbox feature to focusing only on facts and his own conclusions.
“This experience was a really new way of tackling an assignment in a university course. It was purely descriptive and although that may sound simple, it was difficult at the beginning not to write any personal interpretations of the data. I wasn’t explaining experimental outcomes or methods as I was used to, instead I had to look for largely morphological descriptions and new species descriptions. That was a change from articles I usually see or read about, which often involve an experimental procedure and interpretations of the outcomes,” he says. “It was largely an aesthetic change from a traditional assignment but a welcome one.”
Interview by Cassidy Villeneuve, post by LiAnna Davis.