Since 2010, more than 36,000 students in the U.S. and Canada have edited Wikipedia as a class assignment. It’s easy to quantify their impact to Wikipedia: they’ve added more than 30 million words (or two-thirds of the last print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica) on a range of academic subjects that were either underdeveloped or entirely missing. But what does contributing to Wikipedia mean for the students? That question has been more difficult to answer. Until now.
To better understand the types of skills students obtain from contributing to Wikipedia as a course assignment, the Wiki Education Foundation sponsored Dr. Zach McDowell, of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, to conduct a study of our program participants during the Fall 2016 term. After careful analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data, the study found that Wikipedia-based assignments enhance students’ digital literacy and critical research skills, foster their ability to write for a public audience, promote collaboration, and motivate them more than traditional assignments. Students also gain a valuable understanding and appreciation for a source of information they use every day: Wikipedia.
Digital Literacy and Critical Research
In an age when fake news is increasingly prevalent, it is critical that students learn how to differentiate reliable sources of information from the unreliable. The study found 96% of instructors thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students digital literacy than traditional assignments, and 85% thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students about the reliability of online sources. As one student participant in a focus group said about learning to write for Wikipedia and having to understand sourcing guidelines, “It raises an awareness of what is good information, what is bad information … you have much more of a questioning mentality and you’re a lot more conscious of the validity of the information that you read.”
Writing for a Public Audience
According to the study, 79% of instructors thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students to write clearly for the general public. While most of our students may never have to write for a large public audience in their future careers, they will have to share information with their colleagues, managers, stakeholders, and other professional constituents in a clear and concise manner. When students contribute to Wikipedia, they recognize that their work may be read by a broad and diverse audience. They are compelled to ensure that their contributions are comprehensible to a wide variety of readers. In the words of another student in a focus group, “I think it’s going to help you in pretty much any field that you go to because anywhere you go, you’re going to have to write things. You’re going to have to do research and present things in a way that people can understand whether they’re part of your field or not. … I think having that skill of getting a bunch of information and then putting it together in a way that’s understandable to a big amount of people is important.”
The study found that when students contribute to Wikipedia, they learn to be accountable for their own words, but come to understand that results are achieved most effectively through a cooperative spirit. They become adept at receiving as well as offering criticism, and they learn that relinquishing some level of ownership over your work is a path to improvement. There are few professions where individuals work in a vacuum, and contributing to Wikipedia gives students the courage to both accept input and offer up their own viewpoints. Said another study participant: “I always thought of research as a very solitary thing, like someone in a library basement looking through books and stuff. So, knowing that Wikipedia has this whole community of people who are researching and adding to things just changes how I think about it, I think. I never really thought of it as a collaborative endeavor and now I know that it can be, it’s kind of interesting to see it that way.”
Students spend countless hours writing dozens of papers throughout their college careers — papers that are typically read only by the instructors and that never see the light of day again once the term is over. When students contribute to Wikipedia, their motivation is twofold, the study found. Because they know that their contributions will be available for the general public to read, they feel compelled to ensure the accuracy and reliability of their work. At the same time, they have a sense of pride that something they produced may help others and live well beyond the classroom. “When you think about someone else reading your work, you don’t want there to be errors in it, you want it to be relevant. I think it just encouraged me to look back at everything and get input from other people and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite,” a focus group participant said. Responsibility and pride encourage students to produce work that is meticulous, well-researched, and thorough. Not only can they share their work with friends, family, and colleagues, but they can truly say that they’ve published something — a feat most undergraduates rarely get to experience.
Appreciation of Wikipedia’s Policies
The study found that students’ perceptions of Wikipedia improved after contributing as part of a Wikipedia-based assignment. “I do see it as way more credible of a source than I did before. It definitely proved to me that you have to be legit. The monitoring of information is a lot more prevalent than I thought,” said one focus group participant. Wikipedia is a site that most students use on a regular basis, whether they have been discouraged from doing so or not. When students contribute to Wikipedia, they learn how to use the site more effectively. They can identify good Wikipedia entries as well as those that may be in need of improvement. They understand how to use the site as a starting point for research and how to judiciously use the information they glean from Wikipedia.
Students can play a critical role in improving academic content on Wikipedia. Unlike the population at large, they have access to countless library resources that are often behind prohibitive paywalls. This study confirms that contributing to Wikipedia as part of a course assignment can play a significant role in helping students to develop critical academic as well as professional skills, and that students are more motivated and derive more satisfaction from contributing to Wikipedia as compared to traditional writing assignments.
For more details, read the full report on Student Learning Outcomes using Wikipedia-based Assignments. Thank you again to Dr. McDowell for your diligence and commitment to this project. The data for the study is also released under an open license, and we encourage other scholars interested in the learning outcomes of Wikipedia-based assignments to conduct further research and inquiries using this robust data set. We hope that this research is just the beginning of many studies to come.