Wikipedia for teaching new literacies in writing

Allison Schuette teaches with Wikipedia for her English course at Valparaiso University in Indiana. In this post, she shares the impact she’s seen the assignment have on student engagement.

I teach a course, New Literacies, Technologies, and Cultures of Writing, in my English department that seeks to analyze how technology has shaped and is shaping our reading and writing practices. The course I teach includes a brief introduction to the history of the book, and the impact of the printing press. But the main focus is computers and the Internet.

I was drawn to Wikipedia for the obvious reason that it’s a digital writing project made possible only through the existence of the Internet. It helped that two texts I often teach, Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, take competing positions on the value of Wikipedia. I love it when I can make student engagement with a debate experiential. Whose side would they favor once they had contributed to Wikipedia?

When I created the assignment, I focused on teaching students to recognize what makes a topic verifiable and notable. Students also had to find a topic not already on Wikipedia to research and write about. I scaffolded the assignment so that students could practice smaller edits before a tutorial on basic formatting skills.

Students often struggled to find a topic, but several each semester saw their articles accepted for publication. This version of the assignment taught them how to identify reliable sources outside the norm of academic research and to re-present those voices into an organized, well-cited article that maintained a neutral point of view. Most of my students reported an increased understanding and respect for Wikipedia and its editors; they knew more about how to use the encyclopedia well. But, by and large, students didn’t report much in the way of appreciating the collaborative nature of Wikipedia.

That changed when a longtime editor, Alex Stinson, stumbled upon a student of mine. Working together, Alex and my student brought the article, on Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask, to Wikipedia’s Did You Know? section. My student was thrilled with the support and encouragement she had, and the prestige of seeing her work on the main page. I knew I couldn’t reproduce this experience for all my future students, but I wanted to make the collaboration at least more likely. Alex also alerted me to the existence of the Wiki Education Foundation.

Working with Wiki Ed, now that I knew it existed, certainly seemed like a good next step. Not only would I have more support, but my students would have at least a few pairs of eyes on their contributions. I made three significant changes to my assignment:

1) as part of the scaffolding, students were introduced to and required to work on talk pages;

2) students worked in groups on a common article;

3) I selected those articles, upon the recommendation of a colleague—three important, underrepresented works by novelist John Williams.

Of these changes, the first two got me closer to the goal of helping students engage and appreciate the collaborative nature of Wikipedia.

In a post-assignment evaluation, 88% of my students strongly agreed or agreed (63% and 25% respectively) that “I have learned that amateurs can, in concert with each other and under shared governance, produce meaningful public value.” When asked what they learned about digital writing, students wrote: “teaches collaboration instead of control,” “a dynamic form of writing with an active and present readership,” “understanding the power and impact a community can have,” “better understanding of community standards/expectations.”

In fact, the major critique from students was that I hadn’t extended the collaboration far enough. They wanted more freedom to come up with the topics they got to work on.

It’s at this point I’d like to confess how nervous I get every time I teach a Wikipedia assignment.

As a teacher who wants to see her students succeed, I do everything within my power to give them the tools they need. But when you work outside the bounds of the traditional classroom, you open yourself to forces outside your control. Will students find a topic notable enough and not already on Wikipedia? If they’re improving a short stub article, will they find enough sources to avoid filling it in with original scholarship? Will they get access to sources within the time frame of the assignment? Will students working by necessity rather than inclination put enough effort into their research and prose?

Additionally, the stakes go up for students with public writing. Of course, that’s one of the attractions for faculty. We hope that students, recognizing that others will read their work, will care more about it. But there’s something about Wikipedia that’s different than, say, Tumblr or Twitter, which I often ask students to work on in this course. For all its ongoing mutability, Wikipedia keeps articles “stable” in the sense that they’re easy to find. If you Google “Stoner John Williams” today, my students’ article appears as the second hit, just under Amazon’s link. My students know this. They understand that Tumblr and Twitter feeds, while public, are just not going to get the same kind of attention as these three novels by John Williams.

Before the assignment, I polled my students about their attitude toward contributing to Wikipedia. The tag cloud returned “anxious” as the most frequent sentiment. Other tags included “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” and “doomed.” Upon completing the assignment, my students’ attitudes had changed. Asked what it felt like to be an amateur contributor, students tagged “empowering” above all else. Other tags included “cool,” “insightful,” “engaging,” and “enlightening.”

That’s when I knew that, for all my own anxiety, I would be keeping a Wikipedia assignment in my course.

There are a few students who leave skeptical of Wikipedia, siding with Keen’s disdain for the amateur. But I think even the most skeptical students come to realize the amount of work and dedication that go into making the encyclopedia. And most students, extrapolating from their own experience, learn that editors don’t take their responsibility lightly.

They leave the assignment seeing Wikipedia as a product of Shirky’s cognitive surplus, and they take pride in having made their contribution.

Photo: Louisa May Alcott“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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