Teaching History with Wikipedia

Though chiefly concerned with the past, an increasing number of historians are turning to new technologies to ply their trade. The growing field of digital history is helping historians to comb through large quantities of historical data and to, in many instances, reimagine the past.

It’s no surprise then, that a number of historians would like to bring aspects of digital history into their classrooms. Nowhere was this more evident than at the 2017 Teaching History in the 21st Century conference held at the University of California, Berkeley, at the beginning of May. I had the opportunity to present about using Wikipedia in history classrooms, alongside Wiki Education Outreach Manager, Samantha Weald, and Catherine Kudlick, Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and Professor of History at San Francisco State University.

At first glance, a Wikipedia assignment might seem inappropriate for teaching students about the practice of history. After all, Wikipedia has a strict policy against original research , which means students should avoid using primary source documents as part of their assignment. However, a Wikipedia assignment, more than the traditional term paper, can teach students both the historical content of the course and the types of considerations historians grapple with when writing history.

  • Primary vs. secondary sources of information: Because Wikipedia strongly discourages the use of primary source documents, students come to understand the differences between primary and secondary literature. They begin to think about authorship, context, and what constitutes a primary source of information. For example, a New York Times article from 1945 might be considered a perfectly acceptable secondary source of information by Wikipedia’s standards, but could just as easily be used as a primary source by a historian studying that time period. Students are forced not only to think about who wrote the document in question, but how it’s being used.
  • Bias and perspective: Though no single author can lay claim to a single Wikipedia article, Wikipedia assignments introduce students to the notion of “authorship” and “authority,” and helps them begin questioning what role one’s own voice plays in how history is written. They learn the difference between writing history and writing about history, and they begin to understand that bias and perspective are realities that historians struggle with despite their efforts to maintain objectivity.
  • Filling in content gaps: It’s not uncommon for us to hear from subject matter experts that surely their topics must be already well-covered on Wikipedia. While there are more than five million articles on the English Wikipedia alone, articles about academic subjects like history remain underdeveloped or entirely missing. In recent decades, the field of history has come to include voices previously absent from standard histories. Women, minorities, and other marginalized groups are just beginning to take their place on the historical stage, and as a result, there is still much to do on Wikipedia in these fields.

Illustrating these points, Professor Kudlick discussed her Fall 2016 course on the History of Disability. Disability is an emerging field that has little-to-no representation on Wikipedia. Her students contributed over 22,000 words to Wikipedia on subjects like disability in Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, both of which were entirely new entries, as well as more contemporary issues involving disability.

Most students today are “digital natives,” but they are not “digital citizens.” They regularly interact on social media, but rarely think about knowledge production or accountability. While most of the history students we support will not go on to be historians, we hope that, in contributing to Wikipedia, these students feel compelled to correct the historical record in the future if presented with the opportunity and to approach sources of information with a far more critical eye.

Thank you again to Professor Kudlick for joining us and for sharing your experiences teaching with Wikipedia.

If you’re interested in using a Wikipedia assignment, please contact us at contact@wikiedu.org.


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