“Pseudotransactionality is the practice of having students pretend to write a letter to an employer, a newspaper article, or even a tweet” to situate their learning in ‘real-life’ contexts, writes Dr. Kathleen Sheppard, an instructor in our program.
“It’s a real process, but with an artificial end. Students know this, so they tend not to work that hard at it. Students, and in my experience especially the non-humanities engineering majors, think that the reason for writing in many classes—for the professor to see, grade, and stuff in a file to be forever lost to the void—is a waste of time. However, I drove home the point that writing for Wikipedia is a real transaction between the student and the real-world reader.”
When students improve Wikipedia articles as a course assignment, their hard work becomes tangible. They become subject-matter experts, of sorts, and take on a responsibility to deliver accurate knowledge to the public. They must understand course concepts fully in order to explain them to a general reader. They must define jargon. They must link to related Wikipedia articles in the article they’re working to improve, situating their topic within broader disciplines. Students come to understand the difference between argumentative writing and encyclopedic writing. Presenting the facts accurately and comprehensively can have a great impact in spreading awareness about a topic and in better representing academic knowledge where it was previously sparse. Students are confronted with questions about how knowledge comes to be represented on these accessible platforms. What does the public have access to when they want to learn about a given topic? What do students have access to by nature of their institutional affiliation? What information doesn’t make it out to a wide readership? Why is that? How might those gaps affect the public when they’re making behavioral and political decisions based on the information they find? How can students be part of a solution to increase access to information?
When students improve Wikipedia in class, they participate in the act of producing and disseminating knowledge. And they’re held accountable by Wikipedia’s community of volunteer editors, Wikipedia’s readers, and each other. A Fall 2016 study of our program participants found that students feel an increased sense of motivation with this system of accountability. They also feel a sense of pride that something they produced may help others and live well beyond the classroom.
“We had greater discussions of audience, diction, presumptions of knowledge, analysis, and real-world connections than before,” said one instructor in our Fall 2017 survey. “Previous conversations were theoretical, where this assignment made them tangible.”
Similarly, another instructor remarked that a Wikipedia assignment makes students “take theoretically-oriented course content and distill it into a thinking tool and analytical approach to learning.” Students “interpret real world material with that approach, taking their knowledge outside the classroom, engaging in a public debate and defending their ideas in the real world, communicating complex ideas in an accessible language, and exercising meaningful and civil public debate.”
One instructor of physiology remarked that having students edit Wikipedia has relevance for their future professional work. They’ll understand what information their patients bring to their office, and will be able to answer questions about how well-founded those pre-conceptions are.
After being held to Wikipedia’s sourcing standards and other extensive policies, students come away with greater skills to understand what makes information online (and elsewhere) trustworthy. One student wrote in a reflection after completing the assignment,
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Wikipedia prior to this class other than the aforementioned concerns of professors in terms of unchecked editing. What I realize now is that Wikipedia is in a constant state of research and conversations are happening so things get updated to reflect that knowledge. That is not to say that things do not need to be checked, but it is always good when research is progressive. I really learned the ins and outs of editing and all the things that come with it. Another valuable thing I learned that I will use forever is how to assess an article. I had never done anything like this in a previous class, so I do not have something directly to compare it to, but I can say that I learned things that I will hold with me forever. It is so important that instead of just disregarding the site as a whole, we should be working on strengthening it, because people are going to use it no matter what.”
As one longtime instructor said, “A Wikipedia assignment fits well with John Dewey’s principles that school is not preparation for life, it is life.”
You can read more about what student learning objectives are met through a Wikipedia assignment here. And for more information about how you and your students can improve Wikipedia in the classroom, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.