One of the things we’ve learned about Wikipedia course assignments is that class size makes a difference. Because Wikipedia writing assignments are different from traditional essays and research papers, in-class discussions of the writing and research process are important to keep student editors aligned with Wikipedia’s rules and conventions. We’ve found that even with experienced instructors and upper-division courses, large classes often have a high proportion of students who don’t follow the assignment instructions closely. A large class — especially without smaller discussion sections — is one of the ‘red flags’ we look out for with new instructors who want to join our Classroom Program.
In the past, we’ve discouraged instructors with large classes from doing a Wikipedia assignment at all. But I recently worked with instructor Sasha Welland and her Global Feminist Art course at University of Washington — with more than 100 students — to test out a new type of classroom project. Instead of writing articles, Dr. Welland’s students were asked to do a “gap analysis”, identifying where the holes are in Wikipedia’s coverage of feminist art and artists and what sources could be used to fill those gaps.
You can see the results on the class’s gap analysis page. One of the takeaways is that there’s enormous room for improvement in Wikipedia’s coverage of feminist art topics. (The Art+Feminism campaign, part of the inspiration for this assignment, has been working on this gap for more than a year now.) Some of the gaps that students identified were related to the artists and movements that have been explored in class, but many others were topics the students found on their own — including many artists that Dr. Welland had not known of.
One pattern that I hadn’t expected is the focus on biographies. The instructions gave students broad leeway to explore different kinds of gaps on Wikipedia, from individual artists to movements and media that have major gaps, to “ideological gaps” where Wikipedia’s organization servers to hide or deemphasize topics related to feminist art. However, the great majority of students focused on biographical gaps: articles about women artists that were either missing or significantly underdeveloped.
Our next step for this trial assignment is to put these gap analyses to use. The students wrote proposed content for each gap they identified, and sources that, in most cases, will easily satisfy the Reliable Sources and Notability rules on Wikipedia. We’re hoping to work with another art and feminism class — or maybe several — in the fall term, and use these gap analyses as a jumping off point for an article writing assignment. Finding appropriate topics that are accessible to students, underdeveloped on Wikipedia but with solid sources, is one of the tougher parts of running an effective Wikipedia project. With the results of this gap analysis assignment, I’m hopeful that we’ve found a way both to get large classes involved with useful Wikipedia assignments and to make it easier for writing-focused classes to get a head-start on finding great topics to work on.