If we want students to use Wikipedia the way we do, we must teach them how

Last week, Outreach Manager Samantha Weald and I represented Wiki Education at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) annual meeting in Montreal, Quebec. We have partnered with ASA since early 2015, working together to increase Wikipedia’s inclusion of sociology topics and sociological perspectives. The hard work sociology students have been doing has brought knowledge about important topics to Wikipedia’s hundreds of millions of readers. Students in the spring 2017 term significantly improved or created Wikipedia’s articles on feminization, the animal rights movement, and social profiling. We’re thrilled to have recruited more ASA members into our program, as their students will continue adding high quality sociology content for the world to learn from. Along the way, those students will learn how to use Wikipedia critically.

During the conference, dozens of ASA members approached us to praise Wikipedia. Time and again, university instructors said they liked to tell students to use Wikipedia as a starting point when looking for information on a topic. In fact, we hear this all the time from instructors — “students should use Wikipedia, as long as they use it the way I do.” Read the summary as a refresher on the topic, scroll to the bottom, and click through links to cited sources. This way, students can read the academic literature on which Wikipedia is based, guiding them to their university library to learn via peer-reviewed journals, which are known for fact-checking and presenting empirical evidence.

Here’s the thing about skills: telling people to have them does not give them those skills. When instructors approach me and my Wiki Education colleagues to praise Wikipedia and share how they use it as one part of gathering information about a topic, they’re describing information literacy. Those academics have developed information competency far beyond what students have coming in to college, largely through years of rigorous research and guided mentorship. Undergraduate students particularly lack these skills, which is why instructors must design their courses to address skills building. If the purpose of higher education is to build a more competent society, then information literacy practice is crucial for students.

When students actively get involved on Wikipedia, they must leave their comfort zones to participate on a website they’re otherwise more than comfortable referencing from their smartphones. They face a community of practice as newcomers, learning the ins and outs in order to contribute productively. In Wiki Education’s Classroom Program, students complete interactive online tutorials and follow weekly prompts to investigate a topic, synthesize the current scholarship, and distill the information for an audience with varying backgrounds and context about the topic. They learn how to evaluate information and sources critically and frame the topic to a specific audience. In other words, they develop information literacy skills. They apply their learnings not only to Wikipedia but to other sources they use daily, especially on the internet.

If we want students to use Wikipedia the way we do, we must teach them how. If you’re an instructor and want to learn more about how Wiki Education supports students during a Wikipedia assignment, email us at contact@wikiedu.org.


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