Looking back at spring 2021 as we forge ahead

I’ve been managing the Wikipedia Student Program since 2014, and I can say with confidence that one of its greatest strengths is its continuity of purpose and positive outcomes for students and instructors alike. To be sure, each term brings its own set of challenges and learning opportunities, but during the turmoil of the pandemic, it was comforting and uplifting to see that the positivity of the Student Program endured!

Despite the uncertainties of the Spring 2021 term, our students and instructors did an outstanding job! Roughly 6,000 students across 344 courses:

  • Added over 4.5 million words and almost 50,000 references to Wikipedia.
  • Worked on more than 6,500 articles and created almost 550 entirely new entries.
  • And their work was viewed almost 200 million times during the term alone!

The mental and physical challenges of the past academic year were profound, and we were glad to provide our students and instructors with a positive outlet in what was otherwise an academically tumultuous time.

Learning outcomes and skill development

Since its inception in 2010, we’ve known that the Wikipedia assignment excels at teaching students critical digital literacy skills. This has become even more urgent and relevant as disinformation and misinformation floods social media networks. Term after term, the overwhelming majority of instructors report that the Wikipedia assignment helps their students to learn how to critically assess information in digital spaces. This term was no exception.

What we talk about less, however, are the more traditional skills students develop through the Wikipedia assignment. About 75% of our instructors assert that the Wikipedia assignment improves their students’ writing skills, and about 93% assert that the project enhances students’ research abilities. As one instructor wrote, “I will definitely use the Wikipedia assignment again when I teach the course in the classroom. I actually think the students learned more about writing, reading, and research than they would have with a traditional research paper.”

The Wikipedia assignment requires students to take a deep dive into a specific topic and to critically evaluate the available literature. As one instructor noted, “My students gained a deeper understanding of how resources are classified and vetted and they also engaged in conversation about equity in access to those resources.” Not only do students learn how to identify and summarize reliable information, but they learn that knowledge is not equitably available. As members of academic institutions, they often have access to resources that lie behind pay-walls for much of the population. “Students reflected,” wrote one instructor, “on how the Wikipedia assignment enabled them to become attentive to the politics of knowledge production in public digital portals, and they took pride in their roles as engaged digital citizens.”

Students spend much of their academic careers learning to write persuasively. Rarely are they taught to write neutrally and to summarize sources in their own words. The Wikipedia assignment is often the first time students are asked to write encyclopedically, and it can be challenging. In the words of one instructor, “The Wikipedia assignment helped my students grasp the difference between argument-driven writing and encyclopedic writing and the purposes and audiences for both.” Another asserted, “It taught them how to write information qua information. Normally we write thesis-driven papers, but this was about adding information without it serving/proving a thesis or argument.” As difficult as it can be to synthesize information from disparate sources, it can be just as challenging to not make connections between sources and simply report the facts. The Wikipedia assignment offers students a unique chance to learn this particular mode of writing as well as its value.

Let it go!

The vast majority of instructors with whom we work are as unfamiliar with Wikipedia editing as are their students. This makes for interesting and fruitful classroom dynamics. According to one instructor, “These projects help me function more as a mentor/supporter rather than a traditional teacher. It allows me to step away from the spotlight of the traditional lecture class.” Another wrote that, “This project helps students see me as a collaborator rather than an assessor. We interact as fellow Wikipedia editors where once voice is not more powerful than another.” Instructors are often learning alongside their students, a fact that regularly excites and inspires students. “Knowing that the students and I are both servants in the same Global project,” remarked one instructor, “was motivational for both of us.”

Adopting the Wikipedia assignment often requires instructors to let go of traditional expectations around student work and learning outcomes. One instructor put it best when they declared, “Wikipedia proved to help me further release the tight grip on the steering wheel in order to allow students the opportunity to drive themselves! I’ve taken an analogy from the arena of driving to make the point that Wikipedia challenges me to prepare students for a writing assignment and then stay with them in a supportive role even as some of them fail! I’m a better driver (I’ll be the first to admit), of course, than any of my students, but they learn best when they have a chance to crash and burn! And some do! It’s hard to witness . . .especially when the crash appears to cause injury to me! It’s hard to not say, ‘Give me back the wheel!'”

Thankfully, learning how to contribute to Wikipedia carries with it far fewer risks than learning how to drive, and when students do take the wheel, wonderful things can happen. As one instructor remarked, “It allowed me to rely on students learning the key Wikipedia-related skills on their own, while I was able to concentrate on important connections between this project and other course material.” This act of stepping back is what ultimately allows students to feel a real sense of responsibility and pride for their Wikipedia contribution. In the words of one instructor, “I like being more of a facilitator and empowering the students to take ownership over their education to complete the project.”

When contributing to Wikipedia, students know that their instructors may be just one of potentially millions of people that will read their work. In many ways, their instructor becomes yet another member of the public seeking information on the world’s largest encyclopedia. As one instructor noted, “The most important point is that students no longer see me as the sole audience for their writing and consequently feel more invested in and take a greater sense of responsibility for their work.” As another instructor wrote, “Since the audience for each student’s work was much broader than just me, I felt I could make suggestions without sounding like I was saying ‘make me happy because I’m the teacher.’ We were partners in trying to make each article as good as it could be.”

Using facts to uncover bias

Filling in Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps has been a key component of the Student Program since its inception, but in the past several years, we’ve been striving to ensure that equity is at the core of the Wikipedia assignment. Despite its millions of articles, Wikipedia still consists of glaring content gaps and no where is this more evident than in topics and fields related to historically marginalized and underrepresented populations and subjects. We’re happy to say that our students continue to make great strides in filling in these gaps. According to the Spring 2021 Instructor Survey, about 76% of instructors believed that the Wikipedia assignment helped their students to become more socially and culturally aware of systemic bias vis-a-vis knowledge production and consumption. About 66% of our classes made equity a key part of their project, and another 55% reported that they actively asked students to tackle Wikipedia’s equity gaps.

In describing the Wikipedia assignment, one instructor noted, “It was great for discussing systemic biases, and giving students agency in picking their areas of expertise.” Another wrote, “We spend a lot of time in my course talking about decolonizing the practice of archaeology and especially African archaeology — the project became a way to put some of the ideas in this discussion into practice, by specifically addressing knowledge gaps and the underrepresentation of African archaeology in Wikipedia. My students loved the project and many said it was one of their favorite things about the course.”

Learning to identify and remedy systemic bias is a skill like any other, and the Wikipedia assignment excels at helping students to critically assess knowledge gaps and how they arise. “Having the support of Wikipedia to have students edit and create articles of content that has been overlooked or very little written about,” asserted one instructor, “is one of the highlights of my teaching career. As a historian, I am always considering ways to fill content gaps in the literature. Teaching students to hone this valuable skill and understand the real world impact of their work has been one of the most rewarding experiences for them and myself.” As an instructor of science writing put it, “Wikipedia means so many things to me, but in the context of this assignment, it represents a way for me to show my engineering students that their ideas matter — and that writing has social impact. It’s really difficult at times to design a writing course for engineering students that engages them — but this assignment has helped so much.”

We know that adopting the Wikipedia assignment can be daunting, and even more so during a time fraught with so many uncertainties. One instructor put it best though when they wrote, “After an initial period of my thinking, ‘what the heck did I sign on for?’ I enjoyed it quite a bit — and so did my students. Thanks.” We were happy to provide even a modicum of stability and meaning during a tough time. Thanks to all of our students and instructors for another impactful term.


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