Developing integral writing skills for the Digital Age

Gerald R. Lucas is a Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University. Last fall, he taught with Wikipedia in his New Media course. He shares his experience here.

Digital Humanist and Professor of English Gerald R. Lucas
ImageFile:Gerald R. Lucas.jpg, Grlucas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Arguably, Wikipedia is the largest, most-ambitious, and most-successful Digital Humanities project to date. A simple Google search gives an idea of its scale: as I write, Wikipedia contains almost 33,000 active users and over 5.5 million articles; dig a bit deeper to discover that an average of 600 new articles a day are added to this reference giant. The same Google search will probably contain at least one top hit that links to a Wikipedia article. Heck, any Google search will likely point to Wikipedia in its top-ten results.

Yet, we academics seem to have a problem with Wikipedia. While my colleagues won’t admit it, their attitude toward it infects our students. “It’s not reliable,” said one of my students in response to my initial discussion of a semester wiki assignment. When pressed, she—and most other students—said that all of her professors say that serious researchers should avoid Wikipedia because “anyone can edit it.” Again, when I look confused, another student will usually add: “Yeah, how can you know what to trust when anyone can add anything he wants?” Another: “Dr. So-and-so said that entries can be just plain wrong.”

“Well,” I finally ask, “why doesn’t Dr. So-and-so fix it then?”

While perhaps a point for another post, I notice that many of my colleagues seem to give intellectual credence to only that which is printed on paper. There are many reasons for this, chiefly the tenure and promotion system, but Wikipedia looks toward the future while paper roots us in the past. I came to this conclusion a few years ago when I began teaching a course called Writing for Digital Media. Why do we still teach writing with the essay form almost exclusively while not even addressing digital media? With higher education — especially institutions like mine that focus on teaching — pushing “real life skills” (whatever those are) for recruiting and retaining students, a greater emphasis might be placed on the writing, rhetorical, and technical skills for contributing to online conversations and building knowledge more integral to communication today.

Therefore, I decided that teaching the skills necessary for contributing to Wikipedia were not only a good idea, but essential in any writing curriculum today.

I began by installing MediaWiki, the open-source software for Wikipedia, on my own Linux server. I called this LitWiki and had students contribute toward various projects over the course of a couple of years. While the quality of the contributions were mixed, the students never really got the Wikipedia experience: i.e., while they were working together (though always reluctant to alter another’s work), they weren’t really collaborating or held responsible for their work by anyone other than me during evaluation. I decided to move to Wikipedia proper last summer, when I had fewer students and could spend more time assisting.

What a disaster. Details would require more space than I have here, but suffice it to say that my own lack of experience on Wikipedia precipitated a bad experience for many of my students. I vowed then that I would become an experienced editor before attempting to teach using Wikipedia again.

I spent the next couple of months writing two articles from scratch — one for the Norman Mailer Society, and one for Mailer’s short story “The Man Who Studied Yoga” — and a major revision of an article my students collaborated on: “The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer.” I enjoyed this experience immensely. Not only did I get to research, but learning the proper voice, diction, and code for a Wikipedia article allowed me to gain the experience I needed to add to Wikipedia and to teach using Wikipedia again.

During this process, I met and communicated with other Wikipedia editors. One, who was very complimentary and supportive of my own additions, suggested that I participate in the “Did You Know” process—which I did, getting “Yoga” on the front page for a little while—and look into using an educational resource that supports instructors teaching with Wikipedia, Wiki Education. These resources were exactly what I needed for teaching.

Last fall, I used Wiki Education’s support to teach my senior seminar in new media. Traditionally, this is a theory-heavy course in which students write a research paper as the major requirement. I gave them the choice: a 10-page research paper or a significant addition to Wikipedia. I showed them my own contributions as an example, discussed the importance of well-supported additions, and the difference between original research and Wikipedia’s approach. After some discussion, they unanimously chose to work with the wiki. As these were seniors in our New Media and Communications program, they seemed to be the best ones to try this new approach.

Wiki Education’s assistance was invaluable. Not only did their assignment schedule help immensely for organization and planning, but I was easily able to integrate training and assignments into my syllabus. I focused course readings in order to schedule some lab days for editing, discussion, and questions about Wikipedia. While the Wiki Education training was beneficial for the students who completed it, I think additional, course-specific resources would be a strong addition in the future—like links to formatting references and other germane coding details.

Like any assignment, this one had varying degrees of student performance. In all, I think the assignment was a success. It seems the aspect that students struggled with the most is allocating time for research and editing throughout the semester, rather than waiting until the end of the term to attack the project—like many of them are used to doing with a term paper. I cautioned them about editing too much of an entry at once, but many of them found themselves up against deadlines and did it anyway. As a result, some found chunks of their contributions removed. I think, when I teach using Wikipedia again, it would be beneficial to have several editing deadlines throughout the semester, rather than a single big due date at the end of the term. This approach would emphasize the necessity of incremental edits. Again, students have become used to working a certain way because of traditional assignments; therefore, even when I devoted class time to editing and questions, many reverted to procrastination. This is not an assignment-specific problem.

I look forward to teaching using Wikipedia again along with Wiki Education. I think that the best way to approach the assignment will be with articles of local interest and literary ones—my own expertise. I plan to use the former for a graduate course I’m offering this spring.

Writing for Wikipedia not only allows students to develop critical skills for communication in the digital age, but allows them to make significant contributions to local and specialized knowledge. What platform is better than Wikipedia for teaching that writing is a public activity with ethical consequences? When students understand that they are not just students but active members of a learning community, it gives them a new comprehension of the importance of research, accuracy, and rhetoric in daily life. My thanks to Wiki Education for their continued efforts to educate and empower new generations of editors.

Now, if I can just get my colleagues to participate.

If you’re interested in learning more about teaching with Wikipedia, visit our informational page or reach out to

Image: File:Student Life Center, Middle Georgia State University Macon campus.jpgMichael Rivera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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