Engaging media students in service learning through editing Wikipedia

Dr. Jessica Roberts is assistant professor of Journalism and Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Boise State University. Last semester, she incorporated a Wikipedia assignment into her Introduction to Media course.

Dr. Jessica Roberts.
File:Jessica Roberts headshot.jpgJessyrob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I have been using service learning in the journalism courses I teach at Boise State University for several years. Service learning is a great way to direct student efforts toward serving the broader community and to deepen the connections they make between classroom learning and the “real world.” I also teach an Introduction to Media course, and was looking for a way to use service learning in that course. The course provides an overview of the development of media technology, history, economics, and law, and is content-focused, not offering a lot of obvious opportunities for interacting with members of the community. However, the course covers the development of the internet and Web 2.0, including Wikipedia, and students were learning quite a bit about a broad topic. I decided to include a Wikipedia assignment with the goal of helping students learn about Wikipedia in a more hands-on way, to gain a deeper understanding of how knowledge is created on the site, and also to evaluate the quality of articles about a topic in which they were developing some expertise. This seemed like a good way to get them to use their classroom learning to help others and to add higher stakes to their coursework.

I replaced one of the paper assignments in the course with a requirement to draft a contribution to a Wikipedia article on a media-related topic. I hoped that students would find the idea of creating something for public consumption rather than just a course grade more motivating and meaningful. I also hoped that students would develop a more nuanced understanding of why teachers and professors have discouraged them from citing Wikipedia in academic papers. While I often point to the vast, constantly updated store of human knowledge collected on Wikipedia as evidence of the positive side of the internet and collaborative knowledge-creation, I also tell them Wikipedia cannot be cited in their papers. This assignment was designed to help them understand why Wikipedia is a good place to start learning about a topic, but not an appropriate resource to cite in a paper.

Students were encouraged, but not required, to incorporate their edits into the articles. Several students did ultimately edit their selected articles, but the majority did not, choosing instead to leave their drafts in their sandboxes. Students felt intimidated by the idea of submitting their work to the public, and some received comments from other editors or site moderators that discouraged them from posting their work. This was likely a good experience for them in some ways, receiving real feedback about the quality of the work they were producing, and also gaining an appreciation for the rigor of the editing process of all the content on Wikipedia. Students also wrote a reflection following the completion of the Wikipedia assignment, and several students who added their edits to Wikipedia said that the experience was very rewarding. However, the experience was a bit uneven, as most students did not add their edits and may have missed some of the learning opportunities I had hoped to create by adding the Wikipedia assignment.

The Wikipedia course site was very user-friendly, but adding the assignment to this course required a lot of work on my part, including dedicating class time to it and supporting students’ technical needs. If I were to use this assignment in a future semester of the Introduction to Media course, I would concentrate the development of the assignment in the second half of the semester, and provide more class time for critiquing Wikipedia entries, once students have already learned some important course content on the topic of media. I didn’t find the peer revision exercise useful for most students, largely because students don’t offer much criticism of their classmates’ work, so I would skip that exercise to save time. I would also require each student to develop their own entry and edits, rather than allowing partner work.

Adding a Wikipedia assignment to this course allowed me to incorporate service learning into an introductory media course and position student learning in a wider context. It was also an opportunity for students to better understand a resource they use all the time by participating in its creation. I hope to continue to incorporate Wikipedia and other innovative projects like it into future courses.


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