Five challenges of Wikipedia assignments, with solutions

At the end of the fall 2014 term, we distributed a survey to instructors to see what they thought about teaching a Wikipedia assignment. We wanted to share some of those responses. Part 1 is here.

When tackling an innovative pedagogical tool like Wikipedia, the benefits (as we have seen in part 1) are a rewarding, engaging assignment that gives student editors a sense of ownership over their work.

As with any new tool, however, Wikipedia comes with a learning curve. And sometimes, that means challenges. While our instructors were overwhelmingly positive about using Wikipedia assignments again, we wanted to look at some of the challenges they faced, in their own words, and their solutions.

Challenge 1: When do student editors start to edit?
“The biggest issue was getting students to learn the skills needed to edit Wikipedia while also becoming familiar with their topic. I’m modifying the syllabus this semester to focus on finding information about the topic early in the semester, and then learning the Wikipedia skills after a month or so of researching the topic.”

“[…] they made these edits at the very end of the semester, and I didn’t have a good system in place for making them problem solve and interact with the other (experienced) Wikipedia editors to try to clean up some of their content that got removed.”

“In hindsight, I should have gotten the students editing on actual pages sooner and done more smaller contributions instead of concentrating on one article. I will fix this in the next iteration of the course.”

While these challenges are fundamentally the same, the solutions initially seem at odds with each other. Which is the best solution?

A bit of both. We’ve found that student editors work best when they begin using Wikipedia sooner, rather than later. As they find information on topics, incorporating smaller pieces of information early can be a way of maintaining wiki skills developed early in the term, while incorporating knowledge in the course’s topic area.

Challenge 2: Training yourself
“Mostly, I feel like ­­as a busy college professor,­­ I don’t have time to keep up with the ways that Wikipedia changes (in terms of editing, etc.) and I also don’t feel like I have yet mastered the technology (especially the reference tool), and my students struggle with it and I don’t always feel like I can help. This is why the online volunteers and Adam/Ian are so vital and valuable!! It was wonderful to be able to make requests for help and support via Helaine.”

It’s great to see instructors solving problems through using our staff resources. In fact, 100% of the instructors who asked our Wikipedia Content Experts for help said they would do it again.

As a complement to our online training for educators, we also offer print and online help, such as the Using Wikipedia as a teaching tool brochure, or the Editing Wikipedia brochure, which is a great introduction to any Wikipedia newcomer, be it instructors or their students.

Challenge 3: Adapting to Wikipedia’s style
Students had difficulty finding the right tone with their contributions and also balancing what kinds of information would be helpful vs cutting and pasting quotes from research sources without clear context. We dedicated a class to working in groups on what kinds of information one would add to a post and how they would go about doing this (I gave groups sample posts and then sample essays that they could pull information from).

This is a great in-class solution to the problem of adjusting student editor’s expectations about tone on Wikipedia, which is different from what they might expect based on past school work. Our online student training has recently been adapted to more strongly emphasize this difference. Another print brochure, Evaluating Wikipedia, can also create a framework for understanding Wikipedia by evaluating existing content, both good and bad.

Challenge 4: How do you find good articles to start with?
“[It was a challenge] Finding good stubs for the groups to work on. Some stubs were on concepts that were synonymous with other concepts that had full­ fledged wikis. Any work that the students performed on these would have ended up duplicating the other concept.”

“I would say that Wikipedia is running low on good stubs. There needs to be an easier way to identify things that DO NOT yet have wikis, and that need wikis created by them. This is what I originally envisioned doing, before realizing how difficult this would be. But I think that this is what will need to happen as more courses around the country adopt Wikipedia assignments.”

Making good lists of stubs or missing articles can be a challenge. We have a few resources that can help. Our Choosing an Article handout is helpful to instructors and student editors. If that isn’t enough, our Wikipedia Content Experts are standing by to help identify a number of missing articles in your topic areas, or can help you to find other resources that might help.

Challenge 5: Preparing Students
Many instructors (70%) said they needed more helping preparing students to use Wikipedia. This was defined to mean understanding fundamental editing, but also the nuance of copyright and proper referencing.

We’ve expanded the copyright and plagiarism components of our online training for students, which is a crucial component of any successful Wikipedia assignment. We also offer a variety of handouts in print or online, tackling subjects like talk pages, plagiarism, and citing sources.

We’re proud to see such overwhelming endorsements of our support among instructors.


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