Teaching with Wikipedia during a pandemic

Malavika Shetty teaches writing to multilingual students in Boston University’s Writing Program. Since Spring 2019, she has been using Wikipedia in the classroom to teach information literacy, build writing and research skills, and help students put their work on a public forum.

Malavika Shetty
Malavika Shetty

I teach writing to multilingual students at Boston University and have, so far, taught nine classes with Wikipedia. I have enjoyed teaching with Wikipedia and am very appreciative of the support from Wiki Education.  My students contribute to Wikipedia as part of a class assignment and have consistently told me that the Wikipedia editing assignment is their favorite aspect of the class. My experience teaching with Wikipedia was very useful during the pandemic. My students were all remote, but they could still edit and contribute to Wikipedia pages. They could continue participating in, what is considered to be, the largest writing project in the world and find support and receive valuable feedback, not only from their peers, but also from other editors on Wikipedia.

I am very aware of the content gaps on Wikipedia related to gender and location. Because of these content gaps, there are many topics that are not covered at all or do not have sufficient coverage on Wikipedia. Wikipedia needs diverse editors who can fill some of these gaps. When I look around my classroom, I see students from many different places in the world. The international student population at Boston University has doubled over the last decade. Many of the students in my classes come from China, Korea, and from other places in the Middle East and Europe.  I also see an opportunity to encourage and support my female students as they edit Wikipedia. Not only do I have a diverse group of students, but they also have access to library resources and other research sources and a supportive classroom environment. So, I thought, why not have an assignment where the students edit or create new Wikipedia pages related to their backgrounds or cultures?

My Wikipedia assignment asks the students to either:

1. Identify a topic that has not been represented on Wikipedia’s English pages but which exists in other language Wikipedia pages and then translate the page or the topic into English Wikipedia.


2. Work on a topic related to their country or culture  that has not been adequately covered in English Wikipedia or does not exist in Wikipedia.

I scaffold the assignment by asking students to turn in a Project Proposal and a draft before they start editing live pages. Students also Peer Review each other’s work and discuss their pages during class presentations. My students work on topics related to their backgrounds or interests: food, places they live in or have visited, information about topics for which they can find credible sources, and other topics that are not covered or sparsely covered on Wikipedia.

As a writing instructor, I like teaching with Wikipedia because the Wikipedia editing assignment encourages critical, reflective thinking and builds neutral writing skills. Students see their cultures and backgrounds represented, which leads to greater student engagement and motivation. Most importantly, because we have discussed the content gaps on Wikipedia in class, students are very aware and feel encouraged that they are engaging in a socially impactful activity. Many of my students report that they feel a great sense of accomplishment after they have completed the Wikipedia assignment.

Of course, there were plenty of challenges teaching with Wikipedia during a pandemic. When the pandemic first forced classes to go online, and many of my students left Boston to go back to their countries, I thought that the Wikipedia assignment would no longer work very well in a remote learning and teaching environment. Besides the remote learning mode, my students did not have physical access to campus libraries, there were inequities of access to technology for both students and instructors, and many of my students were from China where Wikipedia is currently blocked.

I was pleasantly surprised. The students found an online community of Wikipedia editors who gave them immediate feedback and advice.  Students had access to local information and could take pictures locally. Student motivation and engagement remained high, and thanks to Wiki Education support (thank you, Sage Ross!), I was able to find a way for my students from China to edit Wikipedia. My students continued to be engaged and, in some sense, made even better contributions to Wikipedia because they were in places where they had access to local information about their topics. For example, this Spring 2021, I had a student who created a page on the Jingtang Library in his hometown located in Huicheng District, Guangdong, China. (The image on this blog post is one he took.) He was able to take pictures, talk to people at the library, and find information about the library; information that he would not have had easy access to, if he was still in Boston. Similarly, last semester, a student from India edited the page on Mulund, the suburb she lives in Mumbai, Maharashtra and was able to contribute pictures and information to the page. 

Professionally speaking, as well, teaching with Wikipedia has been, for me, a very fulfilling experience. I presented my experience teaching with Wikipedia at the 2020 CCCC Regional Conference at the University of Southern California (Building Diverse Communities Through Writing). I was invited to be on the Writing Remix Podcast to talk about teaching with Wikipedia. I was also part of a The Second Language Writing Standing Group panel presentation on Teaching Multilingual Students Remotely: Exploring and Learning from Multimodal and Online Pedagogies at the 2021 CCCC Virtual Online Convention where I spoke about my experience using Wikipedia as a classroom resource during the pandemic.

Incorporating Wikipedia in the classroom has been a rewarding learning experience both for me as well as for my students, especially during this pandemic. Although the students were taking the class remotely, by editing Wikipedia they felt part of a community of editors who were all working towards the common goal of sharing neutral, credible information. Through the assignment, my students learned academic writing skills and research skills, and, most importantly, they no longer wrote only for their instructor or for their peers in the classroom, but on a public forum where their contributions could potentially be read by millions of people.

Image credits: Zdu110, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Mettysh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


One thought on “Teaching with Wikipedia during a pandemic

  1. What a great way to integrate your students’ talents, backgrounds, and multilingual skills! If you are ever interested in collaboration, please contact me – many of my students are multilingual as well – and I’ve found this assignment to be very empowering for them. Congratulations on this wonderful work!

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