Bugging Wikipedia: Opening up insect ecology

Dr. Chelse Prather assigned students to write Wikipedia articles as part of her “Insects and Society” course at Radford University. In this post, she discusses the design of that course, and the benefits it brought to her students.

Insects affect human daily life in both positive and negative ways. Most humans are not conscious of these effects, especially not the positive ones.

I’m an insect ecologist with a passion for educating the public about insects, especially the positive and important effects that insects have on daily human life. I have been really excited for years about teaching a course on Insects and Society, and I had the opportunity to do so this past semester.

I wanted students to use the knowledge that they gained from the course to educate others. I saw a great success story of another biologist, Dr. Joan Strassmann, working with Wikipedia to such an end. Dr. Strassmann has been using Wikipedia in her Behavioral Ecology course for several years, creating many new Wikipedia articles and updating many more.

I decided to try incorporating some Wikipedia assignments into my Insects and Society course last spring semester. The course was a small seminar course (nine students) for senior biology majors. None had taken courses on insects, and in reality, they knew very little about insects when the course began. During the first week of the course, I gave the students a short primer about Wikipedia based on Wiki Ed’s instructor tutorial, and the students’ first assignment was Wiki Ed’s online student training.

I assigned each student three orders of insects so that all of the extant orders of insects would be covered—each student was given one order that had a lot of available information, and two orders that didn’t have much. The students prepared fact sheets about each of their assigned orders to teach the other students about them, essentially collectively writing a short primer about the insect orders to use as their textbook.

Part of preparing their fact sheets was reviewing the existing Wikipedia pages for each order, and determining if anything might be incorrect or missing. They especially focused on the relationship between each order and humans. I intentionally left the assignments rather open-ended, with the hope that college seniors would take ownership over their work. I didn’t set a word limit. Instead, I told the students to make substantial, quality changes to the articles.

We discussed how “substantial” may mean different things for pages of different qualities. For high-quality pages (such as this page on mantises), this may be making grammatical changes or adding missing information about the relationship between those insects and humans. For relatively new pages (such as this page on a little-known order of parasitic insects), this may mean adding very basic information about the biology of the insect order.

We then used part of a class period to discuss the changes each student proposed for the Wikipedia pages. We collectively discussed what edits seemed feasible and substantial, and which seemed trivial or not feasible for the student to try and do.

The week after the students’ first round of edits, the pages they were editing had been viewed over 10,000 times. The students and I were both astonished and thrilled that so many people were viewing their work. As we watched the numbers steadily climb throughout the semester, most of the students took the editing much more seriously: they realized that many others were viewing (and often quickly editing) their work, and that their edits may actually make a huge difference in others’ knowledge about insects.

The students went through two rounds of edits on their assigned Wikipedia pages. We also did one fun crowd-sourcing class period to flesh out a new page that lists insect-inspired songs. This exercise included students playing songs for the rest of the class, and discussing how insects were portrayed in music. Students were surprised to find almost every genre of music that we could imagine had songs inspired by insects. We also started to see that certain groups of insects seemed to inspire different types of music; for instance, flies seemed to inspire lots of heavy metal music, whereas butterflies seemed to inspire more romantic and calm music.

I graded the students’ edits on the following criteria: completion for each assigned page; substantial improvement to pages; accuracy; professional conduct; and student’s followed through on comments from other editors. Grading using these criteria did not seem overly cumbersome or time consuming, but this was a very small class. I imagine for larger classes, this type of assignment would be more difficult to assess.

The Wikipedia assignments were not the only assignments in this class. They were graded on their fact sheets, two short exams, several modest in-class assignments, and a written post on a blog I run with another insect ecologist on a topic of their choosing about same facet of the complicated relationship between insects and humans (e.g., one of the students wrote a post about the role of insects in music).

By the end of the class (3 months after the students first began to edit their pages on Wikipedia), the pages that they edited have been viewed over 1.35 million times!

About a month after the course ended, I got the following message from a student:

“….I happened to mention your coordination with Wikipedia for the class and how it was conducive for critical thinking. Long story short, they are interested in perhaps doing something similar, could I put you in contact with them so you can give some of the details on it?”

I’ve never had students email about the assignments in my course well after the course had ended.

Aside from Wiki Ed’s helpful instructor training, which I recommend doing and adhering to, I would suggest the following based on my experience in this course:

1) Engage with likely editors of your pages before the class begins. Check and see who often edits the pages that you’re going to assign. Message them to tell them that you would like to assign your students the page to edit, and that you will appreciate their understanding that these are students and any careful editing they are able to do of the assigned articles.

2) Encourage your students to engage with anyone who edits their work. If they don’t understand why an edit was made, they should politely ask the editor that made the change.

3) Make sure that students avoid major edits of high-quality articles unless there are glaring errors or omissions. If they do find an omission or mistake on a high quality page, have them propose their edits on the Talk page before making changes.

4) Encourage or assign peer review of other students’ edits. Not all pages are closely monitored. This is especially true if your students are creating new pages.

I am so happy that our work helped to educate the public about insects and how insects affect their everyday lives. These Wikipedia assignments also not only enhanced student learning about course content, but also enhanced their critical thinking skills, their ability to take criticism from a very wide audience other than professors, and gave them a sense that the work they were doing was actually very important. For all of those reasons, my students and I will continue to “bug” Wikipedia in the future.

If you’re interested in participating in a science communications exercise for your classroom, find out more about the Year of Science, or send us a message: contact@wikiedu.org. 

Photo: Male Sphodromantis viridis from near Campo Maior (Évora) by Marabuto E, Rodrigues I, Henriques S, CC BY 4.0.


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