The Great Wikipedia Learning Adventure

In this post, Queen’s University instructor Sharday Mosurinjohn writes on her course’s Wikipedia writing assignment, its value as an “authentic” learning experience, and reactions from students and colleagues. 

I have this vision that, in the future, all learning will be service learning.

Not that theory and blue-skies inquiry will be subsumed to “practical” ends. That’s not a vision, that’s a nightmare. My vision is that the effort and ingenuity students muster for their coursework will be directed toward projects that transcend a “demonstration” of competence. Rather, the projects could serve as an audience and evaluator of that competence.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea. Educators have long been doing it, and lately many more are going that way. This vision is an incremental move through what we might call, after Stuart Kauffman (2002), “the adjacent possible.” That’s why I was able to work with the Wiki Education Foundation in the first place.

I’m teaching a course, RELS 452/852, “The Contemporary Religious Situation,” at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. We take the ordinary and extraordinary events of life and the field of religious studies to have a mutual role in constituting “the contemporary religious situation.” From the world stage to our mid-sized town and the digital spaces “in between,” there is a lot going on to shape this situation and our own lives in it.

“Service” wasn’t the word that I had on my mind when I overhauled my usual writing assignments to revolve around Wikipedia editing. The word I chose was “authenticity,” the term education researchers use to name learning activities that are relevant to students’ lives. By being authentic, an assignment can get more buy-in from students. As someone outside of a “service” discipline like education, or an “applied” discipline like engineering, it seemed to me that service, broadly construed, could be a complement to authenticity.

What if our assignments were relevant to students’ lives and to the processes those lives are caught up in on the social scale? What if we could speak to our experiences and solve real problems?

Each assignment scaffolds the skills needed to make an evidence-based contribution to public knowledge around topics in religious studies, and in situations that social actors understand to involve “religion,” “spirituality,” and other concepts. Religious studies is dynamic; there’s no consensus on what “religion” is, or if we should even use the term. Best of all, those topics emerged in early weeks from the students’ interests, background knowledges and curiosities.

Hearing from students

In keeping with this both/and, back-and-forth style, let me and my students explain together the work we’re doing and what it’s like:

It all starts with small getting-your-feet-wet tasks to learn the ropes as a Wikipedia editor. In the words of one student, “editing and making code seemed daunting at first, so I figured the best way to learn was just to jump in and see where it takes me … The day after I edited, I checked my work and, instead of being deleted, more citations were added to it! Since [then], it has been viewed 11,000 times.”

Moving on, there’s a collaborative critical annotation of relevant research articles. For another student, this was a reminder that we “must remain healthy skeptics when reading scholarly literature; we must continue to question and appraise our assigned readings, rather than mindlessly skim through articles, accepting the authors’ propositions solely based on the fact that they are more ‘knowledgeable’ than we are.”

Soon after, students form groups around a bare-bones Wikipedia article of mutual interest. They begin collecting sources, making editing plans, and playing in their “sandboxes.” Having “practice[d] working in a group on the annotation assignment,” said another student, “I found out how group work can be made ordered, so that it doesn’t act as the soul-destroying activity I imagine it to be.”

Along the way, groups workshop their project with the rest of the class. They make either a presentation or a podcast to get everyone up to speed on what they’ve been learning independently, and to solicit feedback on conceptual or technical problems: “Speaking about my work and ideas to an audience of my peers … was an excellent lesson for me in understanding that my confidence in my ideas is boosted by being able to talk to them over with others, and to come to conclusions and suppositions that way.” On the topic of podcasts, specifically, another student remarked: “Four years into my university career and I am just figuring this out: I think I learn best listening.”

Right now, we’re about to perform that venerable scholarly tradition of peer review. In this case, that’s the feedback and copyediting of each other’s draft articles. Our efforts will culminate in the dissemination of fully referenced, collaboratively produced tertiary research that was directed by the clusters of interests in the room. That research will be free to anyone with access to an Internet connection and a screen.

To put it bluntly, “academic journals … who, outside of the academy, can even access those, anyway?”

In RELS 452/852, we’re lucky to have 14 fourth-year undergraduates and one master’s student. Aside from being the warmest, most willing-to-experiment group of students you could ask for, they boast some impressive expertise in their own right.

By giving over the instructional reigns in structured and supported ways, I’ve learned more about what they are bringing into the classroom as whole people than I ever would have otherwise. And the word “supported” here is key; thanks to Wiki Ed’s organizational energies and the evolution of the “Dashboard” user interface, I and many others can appreciate the skills of these amazing students.

The response from my colleagues

We all know you don’t cite Wikipedia.

We all know that everyone uses Wikipedia as a router to get to the sources you do cite.

So, with this mix of taboo and open secret, I had dimly wondered what my colleagues would make of this course as I was designing it. I also wondered what my students would think — sometimes even the people in the least powerful positions in a hierarchy are the ones to defend it.

With genuine curiosity, one administrator said: “I never thought of using Wikipedia this way except for finding out facts that they had gathered. My only comment would be: how truthful are the excerpts within Wikipedia and, as students, can you use them as a reference?” And that was an entrée into a productive conversation on teaching and learning about evaluating sources.

To my pleasant surprise, colleagues at the Centre for Teaching and Learning asked for updates on how my Great Wikipedia Experiment went, with an enthusiasm usually reserved for the corner of the Internet dedicated to cat memes.

Showing a humbling generosity, my department head and one of my students nominated the course for a university award in Educational Technology.

A scholar I had gotten in touch with for permission to upload his portrait to Wikimedia Commons said: “I’m glad to hear there are scholars helping to improve the Wiki source.”

But, unsurprisingly, the most powerful insights came from my students:

“It is a scary yet thrilling prospect to think that people read my words. The moment that I realized that people had read my work, and that I had collaborated with others in the Wikipedia community, was such an empowering feeling. I began to feel a part of, and recognize the importance of, knowledge sharing … Regular essays and papers are only seen by the writer and the professor. Wikipedia articles and podcasts can be read and heard by thousands, giving them life beyond the classroom.”

Imagine the power of these energies from entire classes, schools, and cohorts of undergraduates, fueling the engine of global knowledge and culture, not just through Wikipedia, but far beyond. I will be, as I keep discovering what “higher education” can mean in the 21st century.

Sharday Mosurinjohn
Queen’s University

Photo: Participants in “The Contemporary Religious Situation” course at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.



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