January 15th of this year marks the 17th anniversary of the site’s launch and is thus named Wikipedia Day! This day is celebrated around the world as the birth of the most popular open source encyclopedic resource in the world.
We often hear from students that before completing a Wikipedia assignment, they used Wikipedia almost daily and yet weren’t aware of the mechanisms behind it. There are plenty of questions one might ask oneself when using this encyclopedic resource:
How does information get onto Wikipedia? How is it updated? What information is included? What’s missing? Who are the people engaging in this production of knowledge? Who’s not engaging?
Students in our Classroom Program are confronted with these questions as they learn how to contribute to the online encyclopedia through a Wikipedia assignment. Students must critically evaluate Wikipedia for content gaps and work to correct those gaps. These gaps reveal part of the bias that exists in Wikipedia’s content. Over 80% of the volunteers who actively contribute to and edit English Wikipedia articles are young Western men. They tend to add information aligned with their interests and expertise, unintentionally leaving many areas on Wikipedia underdeveloped. Wiki Education works to bring a diversity of content and editors to Wikipedia. For example, 68% of students in Wiki Education supported courses are women!
A valuable take-away for students after completing a Wikipedia assignment is an increased understanding of digital environments that they encounter every day. What does it mean to participate in digital spaces, to be active producers of knowledge rather than mere consumers, to be held accountable by the Wikipedia community and Wikipedia’s worldwide readership?
Understanding the mechanisms of this resource prepares students to evaluate the accuracy of all information that they encounter online. What does legitimacy look like on Wikipedia? On the internet, in general? By participating in those workings themselves, students come to understand the forces at work in knowledge production–what information is available to the public? Who writes it? Is it trustworthy?
Instructors, academics, and others with information literacy skills can evaluate Wikipedia for accuracy. But no one is born with these skills. We’ve found that if we want students to use Wikipedia the way we do, we must teach them how.
Academia is also recognizing the importance of digital writing. The faculty of York University recently awarded a writing prize to a student for his Wikipedia article, which he created in a Wiki Education supported course. In an interview, the coordinator of the competition, Jon Sufrin, spoke to the importance of writing in a digital space:
“You have to be able to sort through all the available sources, have skills at hyperlinking, and understand how to make use of the web as a dynamic medium. Digital writing isn’t just screen prose, it’s interactive prose. All of these skills are in addition to actually being able to write something.”
Ultimately, this is what it means for students to be adding to Wikipedia:
- Students improve a resource used daily by millions around the world.
- Students are familiarized with the politics of knowledge production. They understand the inner-workings of a source they use all the time and are then able to evaluate it for accuracy and gaps. Hurray for digital literacy!
- Student engagement works to correct the content and gender bias on Wikipedia. Students also make academic scholarship (often restricted behind paywalls) accessible to the public, increasing public knowledge of important topics.
So on Wikipedia Day this year, we’re celebrating the efforts of more than 40,000 students and more than 1,000 instructors that have participated in our programs–and all that they have done to better the resource for everyone.
If you’re in the New York area, there will be a Wikipedia Day celebration and mini-conference on Sunday, January 14, at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan. All are welcome, and it’s free to attend. Community Engagement Manager Ryan McGrady will be moderating a panel on the subject of Wikipedia in education with instructors Rachel Bogan (CUNY Graduate Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology), Jeffrey Keefer (New York University), and Shelly Eversley (Baruch College). For more information about the event see its on-wiki page here.