Topics in the news and pop culture are usually overrepresented in the list of the top 25 most read articles on Wikipedia each week. I use Wikipedia to learn about those subjects, too. But for me, the brilliance of Wikipedia isn’t in its ability to provide information about the latest box office smash or a biography of the president-elect of the United States. Wikipedia is incredible because its vision is to encapsulate the sum of all human knowledge — from the popular to the obscure.
After all, you never know when you might want to learn about peer pressure. Or environmental issues in Kuwait. Or the effects of overtime. Or how we’re more likely to share personal information than we used to be. And Wikipedia is there to help you out.
Or is it?
If you’d tried to find information on Wikipedia on those topics a couple of months ago, you’d have been sorely disappointed. The last three didn’t exist, and the first was littered with warning banners about the validity of the content. While Wikipedia has a lot of great content, it also has a lot of bad content or even no content at all for some important topics.
Why is that? It’s because Wikipedia content is all written by volunteers — “Wikipedians”. And volunteers naturally write about topics they’re interested in — and what they have access to sources for. So when you read an article about Game of Thrones or Star Trek, the quality is probably quite good because many people are interested and sources about them are easy to find. On the other hand, an article about a medical condition or sociological theory might not be — or it might not exist at all.
That’s where the Wiki Education Foundation comes in. We’re not Wikipedia and don’t get money from the banners you see on Wikipedia; we’re an independent nonprofit that’s reliant on donations from people like you. We have a simple mission: bridge the gap between Wikipedia and academia, with the goal of harnessing the power of higher education to improve Wikipedia for readers like you.
We do this in two ways: we support college and university students to write Wikipedia articles as a class assignment (what we refer to as our “Classroom Program”), and we provide university logins to existing Wikipedia authors to give them access to critical sources (in our “Visiting Scholars Program”).
In the Classroom Program, higher education instructors replace a traditional research paper (one which might just be thrown away at the end of the term) with an assignment to write a Wikipedia article on course-related topics. This program is wildly successful, and it works: Wiki Ed staff provide the support for how to edit Wikipedia, and the content students add dramatically improves Wikipedia. In the busiest part of the spring term, we were adding 10% of all the previously under-developed academic content to Wikipedia. We’re supporting even more students this fall term, and the work so far speaks for itself:
- The peer pressure article was overhauled and improved by a Carnegie Mellon student in Robert Kraut’s communications class.
- The environmental issues in Kuwait article I mentioned earlier was started by a UC Berkeley student in Tiffany Page’s environment and development class.
- The effects of overtime article was started by a Northeastern University student in Amy Carleton’s business writing class. Another student in the class wrote the article on the gender identity term femme.
- What personal information we share online is the focus of the article on the social data revolution, dramatically improved by a UMass Lowell student in Naniette Coleman’s sociology course.
These are all important subjects that people seek information on. Prior to this term, they wouldn’t have been able to learn about these topics from Wikipedia, but thanks to Wiki Ed’s work, these underdeveloped topics now have quality Wikipedia articles. And those are just examples from this term. Since the program began in 2010, students have added more than 25 million words of content to Wikipedia. That’s enough content to fill 57% of the last print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, or more than 44 copies of War and Peace. But our work with students isn’t the only way we tackle content gaps on Wikipedia.
In the Visiting Scholars program, we pair an existing Wikipedian with a university. Because so much content is in books and journal articles that are behind paywalls, it can be challenging for Wikipedians to get access to the sources they need to improve an article. Take the article on neonatal infections, for example. Wikipedian Barbara Page started the article a year ago, after getting access to sources through the University of Pittsburgh as their Visiting Scholar. It’s not the only health article Barbara has improved; since joining Wiki Ed’s program, she’s added important, well-sourced medical information to articles on rape, breastfeeding, and STIs. Since Wikipedia is the leading source for health information on the web — it gets more traffic on medical articles than sites for the NIH, WebMD, Mayo Clinic, NHO, or WHO — these improvements are crucial for giving the public accurate, well-sourced information.
Wiki Ed plays a crucial role in the Wikipedia ecosystem, filling in content gaps in those educational areas that Wikipedians don’t have access to sources to work with, or which are vitally important but less popular. Please support our work. If you’re an instructor, teach with us. If you can, include us in your year-end giving. The work we’re doing to provide neutral, fact-based, educational information is more important than ever.