By improving Wikipedia as a classroom assignment, students increase the public’s access to previously inaccessible knowledge, and improve Wikipedia’s coverage of underrepresented topics. And in the process, they learn about their own privilege to information as a university student as well as the social and historical forces at work regarding the sharing and recording of knowledge.
A number of instructors in our Classroom Program have noted that a Wikipedia assignment provides a framework for discussing social justice issues in a classroom setting. An instructor of library science in our program notes on our survey of Fall 2017 instructors,
“The Wikipedia assignment helped me to structure my lectures and it created a more valuable context for doing research. It became more than a grade. I was able to incorporate some of the social justice issues surrounding lack of access to information which provided even more value to the assignment for the student.”
When students are asked to edit Wikipedia as a course assignment, they must first learn how to evaluate the site for where it needs improving. They then participate in correcting what they’ve deemed lacking. In a reflection about her course, Dr. Jessica Roberts describes a Wikipedia assignment as a great opportunity for service learning in her media course.
“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.'”
The tangible impact of the assignment can have a real impact on students’ motivation and personal investment in the project. Students come to understand themselves as subject-matter experts and producers of knowledge. This can be an empowering experience for students, who are asked to speak with authority on a subject they’re learning about in class to a worldwide audience.
Engaging students of color and students who identify as women in knowledge creation can be especially powerful. An instructor of geology reflected,
“This was a course on women in science, so many of the students would get frustrated as we learned about how women are treated in science. It was so wonderful, then, to be able to remind them that they were actually creating new knowledge about women in science, and women of color in science, to right some of the wrongs they were learning about. This in turn made the students feel like they were active participants in the solution, and not just learning about a problem.”
“I love using Wikipedia with students of color, particularly African American students who realize the power of using Wikipedia as a form of knowledge activism contributing perspectives from non-dominant cultures to the 6th most visited site on the web,” says Classroom Program participant Dr. Kyra Gaunt of SUNY, Albany. “It also helps them learn to overcome barriers from gatekeepers and learn practices of resilience. Many People of Color are indifferent or in despair about their place in our society. Editing Wikipedia is a practical way to empower their actions and teach them both better academic writing skills and critical thinking.”
Students wield a lot of power in correcting existing information and closing content gaps on Wikipedia. A student in the Spring 2017 course, Black Lives and Deaths, for example, expanded the Wikipedia article about Kalief Browder by just 26 words. The expansion painted a more accurate picture of the young African-American man’s tragic fate at the hands of the criminal justice system, an injustice that wasn’t fully captured in the previous version of the article. Read about it here.
“I imagine Higher Education running Wikipedia assignments as a core part of undergraduate education in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences,” says Dr. Gaunt. “Especially around confronting issues of inclusion and exclusion.”
Wikipedia policy discourages advocacy or argumentative writing, so the act of social justice in these cases is bringing more accurate, robust, and accessible information to the public. Katie Webber, a Rice University student in our program, even proposed editing Wikipedia as a civic duty:
“I call my senators, I vote, I donate to the ACLU, and now, I edit Wikipedia.”