Teaching Digital History with Wikipedia

As more archives become digitized, historians are turning to new technologies to delve into the past. Drawing from a variety of disciplines, ranging from computational science to digital mapping, the burgeoning field of Digital History is enabling historians to comb through vast amounts of historical data and visualize the past in new ways. From archiving historical restaurant menus to mapping emancipation, historians are embracing new technologies to reimagine the past, and they’re increasingly making this knowledge available to the general public.

It’s not lost on a growing number of historians that digital history projects can provide their students with exciting new ways to understand and engage with the past. At institutions around the country, historians are using social media, online archives, and a host of digital technologies to help their students think critically about history. For some, however, implementing digital history projects is an appealing, but daunting prospect.

Wikipedia-based assignments are an ideal foray into the world of digital history projects. That’s why Educational Partnerships Manager, Jami Mathewson, and I visited the American Historical Association’s 2017 annual meeting in Denver at the beginning of January. When it comes to choosing a digital history assignment, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the variety of new tools and technologies, and as Jami and I heard time and time again, many instructors are simply unsure where to begin.

That’s where the Wiki Education Foundation can step in. When you incorporate a Wikipedia-based assignment into your course, you don’t need to start from scratch. Wiki Ed has recommendations for all stages of your Wikipedia assignment and has developed the technology and resources to make it all come together. Our brochures and handouts and interactive training modules ensure that both instructors and students have the basic knowledge to begin contributing to Wikipedia. Our Dashboard tool keeps track of your assignment from assignment design to peer review to the moment when students make live edits to Wikipedia. And of course, we have an entire staff devoted to supporting Wikipedia assignments.

There are numerous digital history projects from which history instructors can choose, but Wikipedia is particularly well-suited for conveying some of the fundamental principles of the practice of history.

  • Distinguishing sources: Primary sources are the bread and butter of the historian’s trade, but because Wikipedia has a policy of “no original research” that includes users’ analysis, evaluation, interpretation, or synthesis of primary sources, they can typically only be used for straightforward statements of fact. Far from incompatible with the goals of a history course, however, students who contribute to Wikipedia in the field of history learn how to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of information. They become adept at examining a document’s authority and accuracy and learn how primary sources of information form the foundation of secondary literature.
  • History vs. historiography: The difference between these two concepts can be difficult for history students to grasp. The former is the narrative that historians piece together to describe the past, and the latter is the study of historical methodology. When students tackle history articles on Wikipedia, they have to engage with both concepts. They have to convey the facts as captured in the most current secondary literature, but they also have to consider how different schools of historical thought approach a given historical period. In doing so, students learn that facts and methodology are inseparable in the field of history.
  • Bias and perspective: Historians are storytellers above all. They organize a set of facts into a coherent narrative, and they ultimately decide which parts of the story to include and which to discard. Who writes a piece of history matters, and students must face this reality head on when contributing to Wikipedia. Though they should strive to be as objective as possible, they must ultimately decide which facts and sources of information will produce the most robust and well-balanced Wikipedia entry. When others come along and improve upon their work, they can see first-hand that history is an unfolding narrative rather than a static set of facts.
  • Underrepresentation and misrepresentation: In recent decades, the field of history has come to encompass people and voices previously left out of the historical canon. Women, minorities, and other historically disenfranchised groups are now the focus of many historical inquiries, but many of their entries on Wikipedia are either underdeveloped or missing altogether. History students have a unique opportunity to fill in these important content gaps and help Wikipedia reflect the true breadth and depth of history.

As the American Historical Association has well documented, only a small percentage of history students go on to become historians. While Wikipedia assignments are particularly adept at teaching students the tools of the historical trade, they also help students develop critical media literacy and technical skills that they can apply to their future academic and professional lives. Students who contribute to Wikipedia learn to navigate an increasingly complicated media landscape. They develop the skills necessary to make critical judgments about sources of information, such as whether a news headline is real or fake, and come to better understand the ways in which consuming information is not the same as producing it, and that they are two sides of the same coin.

The goal of digital history is to help historians — and, in turn, the public — understand the past in new ways by drawing on new forms of digital analysis. Similarly, Wikipedia assignments can help students grasp the study of history by understanding how to use one of the most prolific digital tools in use today, while at the same time contributing to a historical record millions of people read every day.

There’s no time like the present to begin documenting the past. If you’re interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your course, please email us at contact@wikiedu.org or visit teach.wikiedu.org.


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