As we move into the last weeks of the Spring term, Fall 2016 may seem a distant memory, but for Wiki Ed it was a critical term as we learn how to support a rapidly growing number of courses. It also marked the conclusion of the Wikipedia Year of Science, which we launched in January 2016 as a year-long initiative to improve science content on Wikipedia. We also ran a term-long study to assess, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the pedagogical value of Wikipedia-based assignments. As we grow, each term brings its own lessons that both build upon past experiences and propel us forward.
Each semester we invite participating instructors to complete a survey about their experience teaching with Wiki Ed. Their feedback helps us to better understand how effective our support systems have been, identifying strengths and areas for improvement. It also provides insight into the reasons instructors teach with Wikipedia, how it’s incorporated into their classes, and tells us a bit about the kinds of students who engage in these projects. In this post I’d like to highlight some of what we’ve learned from the Fall 2016 survey.
For context, the Fall 2016 cohort consisted of 276 courses with 6,326 students who collectively added over 4.25 million words to 5,730 articles, including 735 new entries. At the end of the term, their work had already been viewed 282 million times. Since we’re well over 300 courses in Spring 2017, it’s easy to forget how significant 276 was for us — 61 more than Spring 2016, and 114 more than Fall 2015. As we continue to grow, feedback about how our support is scaling from instructors’ point of view is particularly important.
In Spring 2015, 91% of instructors who taught with Wiki Ed said they wanted to teach with Wikipedia again in the future. In Fall 2015 the number was up to 97%. Then 98% in Spring 2016. There’s not much more room to continue that positive trend, but it makes me happy to see that in Fall 2016, 99% of instructors who filled out the survey said they would teach with Wikipedia again in the future.
Work that matters
One of the most common reasons instructors teach with Wikipedia is also one of the main things students like about it: contributing to Wikipedia is important. Instead of writing a term paper that both students and instructors know probably won’t be read again after the end of the course, writing on Wikipedia contributes to the world’s most popular source of information, with the potential to affect a large number of people. As one instructor put it, “Students are more motivated to work on wiki articles because they know that it’s not only their professor will read it but many people will read the article from now and in future.” Others commented that “Students took pride in their contributions and, this particular class, added more to each article than the assignment required”, and “it’s great for students to know that their work reaches a larger audience than the professor and to become participants in creating knowledge, rather than simply recipients.” Phrased succinctly, “The students put in much more effort into their project when they know it is going to be made public.”
Wikipedia’s visibility and potentially large audience means students understand the stakes to be higher than they’re used to. Several instructors concluded that knowing this had a direct impact on the quality of their writing. For example, “The students felt that, because the ‘world’ could see their outcome (rather than just the professor), they had to be more careful and critical in their writing. That was great.” Wikipedia’s popularity as a source of health and medical information has been well documented, and some instructors at medical schools have found that contributing to Wikipedia gave their students a way to meaningfully contribute to an important public resource. One wrote in their survey response that “My students realized just how many people turn to Wikipedia for health-related information, which motivated them to work much harder than a traditional ‘throw-away’ assignment.”
Learning while writing for a general audience
Students are motivated by Wikipedia’s large readership and real-world impact, but that’s not the only aspect of Wikipedia that encourages deeper engagement with their material. Students must also follow Wikipedia’s requirement that articles be written in a particular style, for a general audience. In other words, to write a Wikipedia article it is not sufficient just to learn what the sources say; the material needs to be understood well enough to summarize it accurately and communicate it effectively to non-specialist readers — who, due to the wiki format, may comment or add big notices to the page when something is not written appropriately.
Survey feedback was full of phrases like “fostering engagement with the general public”, “public-facing work and critical thinking”, “understanding that all writing is part of an ongoing conversation”, and “writing for a real audience.”
In fact, 97% of people who filled out the survey found their Wikipedia assignment to be equally or more valuable than a traditional assignment when it comes to helping students learn about writing clearly for the general public — with 78% regarding it as “more valuable”.
Writing for a general audience is beneficial not just as a mode of writing/communication, but also in the way that it requires a solid understanding of the subject. One instructor noted how their students learned “to translate complex [topics] into ways the general Wikipedia-reader could understand.” 95% of instructors found writing for Wikipedia to be equally or more valuable than a traditional assignment for learning about a subject (55% said it was more valuable).
Critical evaluation of sources
Wikipedia has some strict guidelines regarding “verifiability” and use of high-quality sources. This, combined with the public-facing nature of the assignment, means that students pay closer attention to their sources. Several comments mentioned that students “each described more sensitivity in locating adequate resources,” that they “cared more about the resources they were using”, or that the assignment “helped them think about the relationships between their writing, the sources they’re using, the methods that are appropriate to finding those sources, and the genre of writing.”
For helping students learn about the reliability of sources, 84% found a Wikipedia assignment to be more valuable than a traditional assignment. This high number is consistent with what we typically hear is one of the assignment’s greatest strengths, and why people are using Wikipedia to equip students with the tools they need in an age when fact is often conflated with feeling and fake news has become such a prominent part of public discourse.
An opportunity to discuss bias while working against it
Several instructors commented on how contributing to Wikipedia can also lend itself to discussions of biases and inequality, both historical and current. One of Wikipedia’s great challenges is its systemic bias. Part of that bias comes from the model itself, which relies on traditional publishing models for sources on which to base articles. Another aspect of systemic bias is due to the volunteer nature of the project, and an editing community that’s predominantly white and male, from English-speaking countries.
Classes in Fall 2016 were, on average, 61% female and 43% people of color — numbers much more representative of the world that reads Wikipedia — and many assignments focused on gaps in coverage, like biographies of women in science or topics important to African cultures.
One instructor summarized their experience this way: “I asked students in my history of science class to write articles (most brand new, some significantly expanded) on female scientists from the Wiki Women in Science Project. I think this taught, better than I even expected, and better than if I just TOLD them, how many women have been effectively written out of most histories of science. This was a very valuable lesson about how unconscious biases continue to impact the way history gets written even today.”
Wikipedia assignments vs. traditional assignments
We asked instructors to compare their Wikipedia assignment with more traditional assignments to understand where they see the most pedagogical value. I’ve already mentioned a few of the most salient ways in which a Wikipedia assignment was viewed as more valuable: helping students learn to write for a general audience, evaluate the reliability of online sources, and learn about class topics. It also stood out as a way to teach digital literacy (96% found it to be more valuable than a traditional assignment) and for developing technical or computer skills (79% said it was more valuable). Most instructors similarly found it to be equally or more valuable for developing critical thinking skills (93%) and peer review skills (84%).
Thanks, and an invitation
Thank you to the instructors who taught with us in Fall 2016, and to those of you who took the time to fill out this survey. I hope everyone teaching with Wikipedia in Spring 2017 will do likewise to share your experience. Your feedback contributes not just to our understanding of how people use Wikipedia in the education, but also directly informs decisions we make regarding the support we provide. We’re always eager to know how we’re doing, as well as how you’re doing and what you’re up to. Beyond the survey, if you ever want to share an anecdote, salient student feedback, ask a question, or make a suggestion, please reach out to us by email. If you’ve taught with Wiki Ed and would be willing to share your experiences and what you’ve learned with others, I’d like to invite you to write a guest blog post for us. To talk more about that, send an email to me at email@example.com.
As David Webster wrote in a recent guest blog post, “There are few assignments that better illustrate the nature of sources, the research process, and the relevance of student writing.” If you haven’t taught with us but you’re interested to learn more, take a look at the kinds of support we offer at teach.wikiedu.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.