Why Wikipedia assignments work for digital literacy

University undergraduates may be tech-savvy, but that doesn’t always mean they’re digitally literate.

It’s easy to mistake frequent use of new media for an understanding of media literacy. But that’s a bit like saying you can learn Japanese just by showing up in Tokyo. Like any form of literacy, understanding media requires not just exposure, but direct engagement.

Even the term “digital literacy” is less than straightforward. Every university or college may have its own variation on what skills make up a “digitally literate” student. The American Library Association calls it “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.”

What we see most often are attempts to transfer an analog writing assignment into a digital forum. Case in point: Requesting students to write essays in blog form. Too often, students write the same essay they always have, with an added step of copying it into WordPress.

We’d argue that, while this may acquaint students with the technical side of using these platforms, it doesn’t really translate into digital literacy. It’s not challenging the way students “find, understand, evaluate, create, or communicate digital information.” It’s simply shifting the method of delivery to the instructor.

Why Wikipedia is different

Wikipedia writing assignments are one of the most powerful methods of developing media literacy skills in higher education classrooms.

The idea behind the Wikipedia assignment is straightforward: Instructors assign students to craft a Wikipedia article instead of a term paper.

To make a meaningful contribution on Wikipedia, a student compares the knowledge they’ve learned about their field to the knowledge presented on Wikipedia. Right away, that’s engaging in a media critique. It’s also deep learning: that is, critical thinking based on received knowledge that transforms into applied knowledge along the way.

The discovery that Wikipedia is sometimes flawed may not be mind-bending to many students, who are dissuaded from using it from their first experience writing for school. Once they get “under the hood,” though, they start to think about when they can, and can’t, trust the information they find. They use that experience in deciding what they can rely on to contribute to Wikipedia.

Students learn to understand Wikipedia as a publishing platform, but also as an online community. While not every student will work with other Wikipedians, the rules and guidelines are clearly laid out in the student training Wiki Ed provides for students, and staff helps students along as they develop their contributions.

Lots of questions naturally come up as they go. How do they determine if a source is reliable? What does it mean to aim for neutrality? How does Wikipedia define neutrality? How does a volunteer community develop these standards for inclusion? How do they decide what to exclude, and why?

But one of the most powerful experiences for students is seeing their article online, and knowing that they’ve written something that could be read by millions. We ask students to use a Google search for their topic and see where their work ends up. It’s usually in the top five search results. That’s an “a-ha” moment for many: they see the power of their contribution to open, public knowledge.

But it’s also a lesson in where information comes from. It’s a reminder that they while they can, often, rely on the information they find online; they also need to think critically. Editing for Wikipedia provides the tools they need to do that. While we often say that Wikipedia assignments aren’t about reading Wikipedia, but writing it, that’s not entirely true. By learning how to write Wikipedia, students also learn how to read Wikipedia. That skill translates to any of the information they find online.

Deep learning and digital media literacy

We believe the Wikipedia writing assignment isn’t just an exercise in media literacy development, but it’s a rare opportunity for deep learning in a digital media literacy context.

According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, deep learning calls for students to “apply what they have learned in one subject area to newly encountered situations in another. They can see how their classwork relates to real life.”

Wikipedia assignments help bring any subject into a deep learning context. It inspires students to master content by drawing on received knowledge and transforming it into applied knowledge. The gaps they find on Wikipedia are problems to solve. They have to tap into what they know, reassess what’s presented, and solve a communication problem by bridging the gap between them.

They don’t just answer questions. They identify problems on their own, and then invent their own solution.

Communicating to a real audience is just one aspect of creative problem solving. They may also encounter true collaboration with other Wikipedians, or their classmates, as they apply their knowledge to a new context.

And when they’re finished, they find themselves believing in the knowledge they’ve acquired. They’ve been tested, not with a bubble sheet or an essay they’ve written hundreds of times. Instead, they’ve been tested by the open-ended and self-directed inquiry into a topic that draws on what they’ve learned. That independent application of knowledge drives home a real shift into an “academic mindset,” where they take what they’ve studied and apply it to the real world.

The result is not only a deeper mastery of their field, but also a deeper, applied understanding of the forms of literacy required for a digital era defined by questionable sources and loosely defined standards for reliability.

We’re looking for even more higher ed classrooms to join us this year. We offer a range of online tools and print resources to help your students learn about Wikipedia. Our staff will work with students on Wikipedia, so you’re free to instruct them in your area of expertise. If you’d like to learn more, send us a message: contact@wikiedu.org.



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