This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Student Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.
After a decade of running the Wikipedia Student Program, we know why so many instructors are drawn to this novel assignment and why they return to it over and over again. At its core, the assignment allows students to have an immediate, real world impact on a site that is accessed daily by millions around the globe. There are few projects that can claim that type of reach and scope, and the pride our students and instructors experience is infectious and palpable. While pride and satisfaction are some of the highlights of the Wikipedia assignment, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Like Wikipedia itself, the pedagogical value of the Wikipedia assignment has evolved since the program’s inception in 2010, and indeed, the skills students learn from contributing to Wikipedia are more important than ever.
Digital literacy and digital citizenship
When I joined Wiki Education in 2014, the program had already been running for four years, and I was excited to support a program that helped students develop critical digital literacy skills. To be sure, most of the students who participate in our program “are tech savvy” and can fluidly navigate between different social media platforms. Tech savvy and digitally literate, however, are not one and the same, and the Wikipedia assignment is often the first time students truly learn how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information.
For years the overwhelming majority of our instructors — well over 90% — had regularly indicated that the Wikipedia assignment facilitated the learning of digital literacy skills among their students, but in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the rise of fake news, this statistic took on new meaning. Digital literacy has taken on a new sense of urgency, and it is no longer a “nice to have” for today’s students. Wikipedia is only as reliable as its sources, so learning to critically evaluate sources is a key component of the Wikipedia assignment. In a nutshell, students quickly learn that not all sources of information are created equally. They begin to question not only a source’s content, but its origin, its author, and its connection to the subject at hand. More importantly, they begin to realize how easy it is to disseminate unreliable information and how quickly misinformation spreads. As one of our students remarked, “It raises an awareness of what is good information, what is bad information … you have much more of a questioning mentality and you’re a lot more conscious of the validity of the information that you read.”
At last year’s WikiConference North America, a speaker declared that digital literacy is a human right. More than that though, digital literacy is a key component to developing a strong and lasting sense of digital citizenship — i.e., as members of an increasingly complex digital community, we all share responsibility for maintaining the health and well-being of the community and all of its participants. And this, more than anything else, has come to represent one of the shining beacons of the Wikipedia assignment.
More than 90% of our instructors remark that the Wikipedia assignment helped their students to develop a sense of digital citizenship. In short, when students learn to contribute to Wikipedia, they not only learn how to discern between reliable and unreliable sources of information, but they learn that they have an obligation to share information that is reliable and call out information that is untrustworthy and misleading.
Social and cultural competence
Wikipedians like to talk a lot about “content gaps” and how to address them. In essence, a content gap on Wikipedia is just missing information on a given subject; but not all content gaps are created equally. Because Wikipedia is edited by volunteers and that volunteer base is largely composed of males from the West, Wikipedia has some glaring content gaps, most notably around subjects related to women and other historically marginalized populations. One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find examples of these inequities. Only slightly more than 18% of Wikipedia’s biographies are of women — a reality that groups like WikiProject: Women in Red are attempting to remedy. The fact remains though that despite its more than 6 million articles, Wikipedia still has a long way to go when it comes to issues of equity.
Wiki Education has long since been committed to helping fill in Wikipedia’s equity gaps, and we know that our students play an important role in this endeavor. We know that through our students Wikipedia now has coverage of topics that were previously missing or underdeveloped. Whether it’s writing about female scientists whose contributions to their fields have been left out of the historical record or the cultures of indigenous communities, the impact to Wikipedia is evident. More elusive though is how this work has affected our students.
A few terms back, we began asking instructors whether the Wikipedia assignment has improved the social and cultural awareness of their students, and the majority agreed that it did. In essence, like their growing sense of digital citizenship, students, especially those who focus on equity gaps, begin to learn how to discern bias both in knowledge production and consumption. They begin to understand how knowledge inequities arise and how they can be remedied. They start to identify why certain types of information are regularly missing and how bias can pervade every part of the knowledge production process from sources to the final product. As one instructor wrote, “The project also increased their understanding of representation — who is included, who is not, and whose absence we notice.”
As the program has developed, we’ve adapted our materials to get all students thinking about these issues, not just those directly tackling issues related to equity and bias. It’s our hope that all students will think about bias at some point during their Wikipedia assignment, whether they’re contributing in the field of plant biology or gender studies.
Research and evaluation
It’s not uncommon for our instructors to report that their students step foot into their university’s library for the first time to complete their Wikipedia assignment. While this might look different during the COVID era, the sentiment holds true. A key part of learning to discern reliable sources of information from the unreliable is knowing how and where to find those sources. It is no surprise then that librarians play a critical role in many of our courses.
Learning how to contribute to Wikipedia is inherently an enterprise in learning how to search for information. Students learn how to comb databases, examine archives, identify leading journals in a variety of fields, as well as how to approach their librarians for help. They might even pick up a physical book or two in the process. In Spring 2020, one of our instructors relayed the following anecdote: “Because of the pandemic, our university library was slower than usual. One student, frustrated that one of the books she wanted to read for the Wikipedia assignment was not immediately available at our university library, got on a bicycle and went to borrow a book in a city library in her town. I’ve never seen a student do that.”
While we may speak about the skills students obtain from learning how to contribute to Wikipedia as distinct items, they are all bound up together. Library fluency and digital literacy are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin, and students are developing both skills simultaneously. Similarly, as students are learning how to search for and identify reliable sources of information, they’re also learning how to critically evaluate that information so they can ultimately apply it to their Wikipedia contribution.
There are very few professional paths in which people are not expected to work collaboratively to complete a project. Yet, most academic assignments undertaken at the college level are solo endeavors. Whether or not anyone comments on your contribution or alters it in any way, contributing to Wikipedia is inherently an act of collaboration and cooperation with a community of dedicated volunteers. It can often be nerve-racking for students to receive feedback or have their work edited by another user, but they ultimately learn how to accept and offer feedback as well as how to work with others to improve the final product. According to one instructor, “My students learned important lessons from the feedback they received from the Wikipedia community. I try to teach these lessons, but there is nothing quite like the experience to make an impact.”
Students are often very proud of their Wikipedia contributions. They regularly show them to family and friends and feel a great deal of satisfaction about their work. They also know, though, that next time they look, their contribution might be altered or gone all together and to accept that outcome as ok. Collaboration doesn’t mean making sure that your ideas stick, but rather, that your ideas and hard work guide and inspire others.
In fact, based on current research around the impact our students have on Wikipedia, we know that page viewership for the articles our students edit are higher and as a result, these articles are more likely to be edited and updated in turn. The collaborative element of the Wikipedia assignment is immediate, but it’s also a long term dialogue that continues well after our students finish out the term. Their edits contribute to an article’s trajectory, and this longevity teaches our students that collaboration is an ongoing process.
Empowerment and community building
In the past several years, a growing number of instructors have remarked on the empowering nature of the Wikipedia assignment. They describe it as a service-learning project or as an act of social change. Students are in an incredibly privileged position vis-a-vis knowledge and their access to expertise, and many institutions and instructors are beginning to recognize that mastery of that knowledge isn’t enough. Today’s students need to use that knowledge to bring about change both on their college campuses and the communities in which they’ll ultimately live and participate.
Even if it’s just for a single term, the Wikipedia assignment often makes students feel like experts capable of providing the world with reliable and important information in a given field. They can do something their professors can do — namely, publish work for the world to see — and indeed, their contributions are often viewed more widely than any material published in an academic journal. They are empowered to trust in their own abilities, and they know that the information they share may empower someone else in turn.
To edit Wikipedia is to know that you have the power and the know-how to make a real difference. As one of our former students wrote, “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.”
One assignment, many outcomes
In 2016, Wiki Education sponsored a study to evaluate the learning outcomes of the Wikipedia assignment. Based on a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the thousands of students participating in the program in Fall 2016, we learned that the learning outcomes of the Wikipedia assignment were indeed myriad. What sets the Wikipedia assignment apart though is not the individual skills that students develop as a result of contributing to Wikipedia, but the fact that they learn so many distinct skills at once. As one instructor remarked, “There are few assignments that incorporate all of MY course goals (teaching critical thinking, practicing research skills, writing intensive work, facilitating collaboration between students, teaching practical skills, and incorporating equity work) in a succinct manner. The cherry on top was the degree to which students engaged with the project and created thoughtful and significant edits (which in many cases either significantly improved/changed the Wikipedia pages or created totally new and original content).”
As the Wikipedia Student Program enters its second decade of operation, the project will continue to evolve, but we’re confident that students will continue to develop a wealth of academic, professional, and personal skills as a result of their involvement — even if only briefly — with Wikipedia and its editing community.