When Heather Birch, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, first learned she’d been assigned to write a Wikipedia article for Dr. Jonathan Obar’s Knowledge Media, Culture & Society course in spring 2014, she worried about finding an article to edit and spent a week struggling to make the decision. Her research focuses broadly on gamification, but she thought its existing article was already in decent shape. Dr. Obar then guided the class to show them that coverage is still missing on several topics, and Heather realized she could narrow her focus and create an article on the gamification of learning.
“The Wikipedia assignment is ideal when students can choose their own topic and need to synthesize existing knowledge,” Heather says. The topic she selected to write on for Dr. Obar’s class fit this requirement. Heather says her experiences teaching music to students aged 7 to 17 has taught her that while students enjoy making music, they often struggle to find time to practice, and so her graduate research is focusing on using elements of games to make learning fun and support music students as they practice. She was intrigued to discover there wasn’t a Wikipedia article about the gamification of learning, and since she has immersed herself in the scholarly literature of the topic, she felt confident to write the article from scratch.
Heather still thinks traditional papers have their place when reporting original research, but she enjoyed the collaborative nature of this assignment.
“In the case of the Wikipedia assignment,” she says, “the classroom community was expected to engage with the writing of others. Not only does this provide an authentic audience, but it also builds community and a sense of collective cognitive responsibility within the classroom.”
In fact, Heather saw elements of gamification of learning present in Dr. Obar assigning her to contribute content to Wikipedia. As a scholar in the field, Heather was able to appreciate the meta-level aspects of the Wikipedia assignment as well, and created an infographic highlighting the gamification elements in the Wikipedia learning experience she had by doing this assignment.
After her experience editing for Dr. Obar’s class, Heather says she will continue to update the article. Given the topic of gamification in learning is receiving scholarly attention now, she expects more information to come to light in the coming months and years, and she’s committed to updating the Wikipedia page so it stays accurate.
Editing because of her subject expertise is not her only motivation, though. She also appreciates the necessity of closing Wikipedia’s gender gap.
“I had heard of the low representation of female editors on Wikipedia, but until I became part of the community myself, I did not appreciate the significance of the gender imbalance,” Heather says. “Being in the minority gender on Wikipedia, and having a voice, is a tremendous opportunity to shape what Wikipedia is, as well as be an example to other women.”