Recapping the Fall 2020 term

In many ways, Fall 2020 was a typical term for us at Wiki Education. We supported 322 courses across a variety of subjects, course levels, and institutions. But Fall 2020 was by no means ordinary. The ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the tumultuous nature of the presidential election made it a term like no other. We’re always proud of the instructors and students we support, but the contributions and work of our Fall 2020 cohort deserve extra recognition in the face of these incredible circumstances.

The numbers

While numbers only tell part of the story, they’re impressive nonetheless. Despite the uncertainties of the Fall 2020 term, our student editors:

  • Added about 5 million words to Wikipedia.
  • Added more than 52,000 citations.
  • Worked on more than 6,500 articles.
  • Created 532 new entries.

To put things in perspective, our Fall 2019 cohort, which consisted of 388 courses, contributed just under 6 million words to Wikipedia. Our Fall 2020 students were busy indeed!

Meaning during the pandemic

As the move to online teaching made it difficult to build connections and community among students and their instructors, we were heartened to hear that the Wikipedia assignment helped to forge meaning and inspiration. As one instructor wrote, “Because we wrote as a team, the Wikipedia assignment ended up helping us to build an esprit de corps which was so welcome in these COVID-online times.” Another instructor remarked, “In a semester where students were anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed, it was more important than ever to have assignments that students found meaningful, and I believe that this fell into that category.” Yet another instructor noted, “this assignment brought energy to a semester that was weighed down by all of the stress of the pandemic.”

During normal times, instructors and students are drawn to the Wikipedia assignment because of its real world impact, and this was especially true during the pandemic. According to one instructor, “The Wikipedia project was by far the most meaningful assignment that I have done in my courses, and my students expressed the same sentiment. What made the project especially resonant was the fact that it had an authentic audience. Students understood that they were writing for readers well beyond their professor, and that knowledge pushed them to do deeper research and work more carefully on their writing than they would do for an ordinary research paper.” Because of its public facing nature, the Wikipedia assignment offers another layer of accountability lacking from the traditional term paper. Students know that millions may potentially read their work, and this leads to greater motivation, engagement, and ultimately satisfaction.

The project’s overarching meaning also helps students to really absorb course content. In one of our courses, where the students wrote about different species of spiders, the instructor remarked, “I pointed out to them that after taking organic chemistry they would probably be challenged to spend even 10 minutes telling what they learned a year later, but they will always remember their spider.” As another instructor wrote, “Wikipedia gets my students engaged and excited in the material. It also helps the students see the importance of the very technical material in my course and its relevance to their overall education.”

Community in and beyond the classroom

Beyond its ability to foster meaning and engagement during a highly challenging time, the assignment often helped to forge community and cooperation both among students and instructors. The vast majority of instructors in our program have no prior experience contributing to Wikipedia, and as a result, they are often learning alongside their students. “I was able to be more of a mentor/editor with my students,” wrote one instructor. “They self-directed their learning and came to me when they needed help. I was able to act as an overall project manager, making sure each student was on track with their learning and assignments.” As another instructor noted, “I regard myself as a team member when we work on Wikipedia and that helps me to build rapport with the students.”

The Wikipedia assignment often helps to break down the barriers between expert and lay person — in other words, between teacher and student. Students realize that their voice matters, and that they can truly bring something to the Wikipedia table despite their lack of credentials. This often suffuses the class with a democratic spirit and real sense of collaboration between instructor and student. One instructor put it best when they said, “I see my relationship as teacher-student and theirs as student-teacher.”

The project allows students to develop an authoritative voice and provides them with the confidence to share their expertise. “This project,” wrote one student, “honestly seemed very daunting in the beginning. I very clearly remember thinking there was no possible way I could think of something I knew more about than Wikipedia already did. However, as I brainstormed and browsed options, I realized just how much information there is on the internet I can draw on and how much is actually still missing from Wikipedia. Seeing how much information I actually was able to contribute made me realize that everyone actually may have something valuable to contribute. Originally, I had always thought only experts in topics contribute to Wikipedia, but after this project I understand more how every person’s different experiences and knowledge can contribute to such an incredible and huge database.”

Effecting and affecting change

Expertise and accuracy matter, but the Wikipedia assignment helps students recognize that perspective and experience matter as well. Who contributes to Wikipedia is just as important as what they contribute, and indeed, the two go hand in hand. Wikipedia has long struggled with equity gaps, both in its content and its contributor base which is why we have long sought to tackle some of these equity gaps.

The thousands of students we support each term are reflective of college campuses more broadly and as a result, roughly 65% of our students in the Fall 2020 term identified as women. 6% identified as Black/African-American, 13% as Hispanic/Latinx, and 17% as Asian/Asian-American. Roughly 45% of our students have fluency in another language, and about 9% identify as having a disability. 19% are the first in their family to attend college. Moreover, about 64% of the instructors who participate in our program identify as women, a far higher percentage than the number of women who occupy academia more generally.

By virtue of the Wikipedia assignment, we are bringing change to Wikipedia. For years, Wikipedia’s core editing community has been about 80-90% men, which has in turn led to glaring gaps in content around women and other historically underrepresented populations. Our students and instructors, due to their diverse make-up, are injecting Wikipedia with new perspectives and avenues of research.

In one course, where students explored Black artists, they quickly came to appreciate the role Wikipedia can play in giving voice to neglected populations as well as its limitations. As one student described, “Since the art world is not historically inclusive and has prioritized white artists’ work, it would not be a stretch to hypothesize that the identities and agendas of those who manage archives are not very inclusive either. This can then speak to some of the weaknesses of Wikipedia: it relies on users to contribute information from reputable, unbiased sources (such as archives), and some information about lesser known artists can only be found in news articles and sources that Wikipedia discourages using. This lack of privilege makes it more difficult for Black artists to be discovered and studied. A strength of Wikipedia is that because anyone can contribute, it does not discriminate against people of lesser education or privilege in general. It opens the opportunity for diverse subjects to be explored and grants them a place in a popular platform. However, in order to move Black art research forward (as well as research of all affinity groups’ art), more inclusive archives are essential, and academics must be empowered to explore diverse histories of art. While Wikipedia is in no way comprehensive in learning about Black art (as I have seen and explained for myself), its popularity makes it a crucial impetus in diversifying art history knowledge.” Wikipedia can often seem like a closed system, a world onto itself, but it is, in large part, a reflection of society and struggles with the same issues of bias and representation present therein.

Another instructor remarked, “The university is not an elite institution. Students are working class. Most are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most come out of a public education background. A few are older students who are completing a degree. Everyone works. Most of the women have young children. It’s nice to find a project that has multiple boosts to what the students can learn, and that they can achieve something with a wider impact.” While it’s true that anyone can edit Wikipedia, few do, and even fewer with the backgrounds described by this professor. This is to Wikipedia’s detriment, and we’re proud to bring a diverse array of voices to Wikipedia so it can truly achieve its mission of representing the sum total of human knowledge.

Concluding thoughts

Many of the quotes above could have been written during non-pandemic times, but they took on new meaning during a term defined by unpredictability and hardship. Despite all of its rewards, the Wikipedia assignment is neither easy to adopt or execute which is why we are incredibly proud of and grateful to all of the students and instructors who participated this past fall. If the meaning we provided to our participants was even a fraction of the meaning they provided us during this tumultuous time, then we’re all on the right track.


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