Dr. Zach McDowell, Assistant Professor of Communications, gave a talk on March 2 as part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Sciences Research Institute Speaker Series. In his talk, “Don’t Cite it, Write it! Student Learning Outcomes and the Wikipedia Assignment,” Dr. McDowell walks through how a Wikipedia assignment works, what tools and support Wiki Education provides for instructors, and how he brings it all together in his own courses. He also discusses his research findings about the value of teaching students to improve Wikipedia as a classroom assignment.
“How many of you have used Wikipedia?” Dr. McDowell asks his audience. Not surprisingly, everyone raises their hand. “How about in the last week?” Still most hands up. “In the last day?” A number of hands stay up. “We use it. But we tell students not to!”
“Students are being told that Wikipedia is untrustworthy, and that they need to go do research,” he explains. But there’s a disconnect here. Students are told to be wary of Wikipedia’s information, but not why. This confusion translates to students being equally wary of trustworthy and untrustworthy information.
“When we tell students ‘go do research’, our idea is that you go to the library, you use databases,” says Dr. McDowell. “They Google.”
And unfortunately, most students don’t have robust skills to identify the trustworthy, well-sourced information from the misinformation online. Take Stanford’s 2016 study about students’ information literacy skills. The research finds that students have a really hard time identifying credible sources online, distinguishing advertisements from news articles, and understanding where information they find comes from.
“The problem with telling students that they’re not supposed to use Wikipedia, but at the same time knowing they are, is abstinence-only Wikipedia education,” says Dr. McDowell to the chuckles of the audience.
“They’re on it every day, they’re using it. But they’re not being educated about how it works.”
And so, with a Wikipedia assignment, students become part of the community of Wikipedia editors making the resource what it is. Not only do they gain critical media literacy and research skills in the process, but they benefit Wikipedia’s readership by adding information that was previously unrepresented on the site.
Although Wikipedia has been determined to be just as comprehensive as other encyclopedias are, there are still gaps in its content (just like any informational resource). Students are uniquely situated to be great Wikipedia editors for a number of reasons. They have access to university library collections, and therefore can bring academic research to a public forum — research that might not otherwise reach as big of an audience. Students have field-specific interest, expertise, and access to subject-matter experts (their instructors). And they bring diverse perspectives; 64% of students in Wiki Education-supported courses identify as women, as opposed to 10-20% of Wikipedia’s editors who do.
Students editing topics within disciplines like women’s studies understand the systemic biases of Wikipedia because when they look up topics in the field that they’re interested in, they don’t find much. Dr. McDowell has conducted Wikipedia assignments in his own courses since 2011. One of his students came to him with the idea to write about misogyny and mass media, which didn’t have an article on Wikipedia. Since that student created the article, misogyny and mass media has been viewed about 1,000 times a month for the past six years.
“My students are being read more than anyone in my department, probably more than anyone in this room, and probably more than all of us put together in this room.”
And it’s a valuable learning experience for them, as Dr. McDowell’s research has found. The editing process brings in rigorous peer review, and an enormous amount of self-editing. Students tend to be more motivated to produce quality work than they are in a traditional assignment, given that the audience for their work is not only their instructor, but also the whole world. They develop skills in online communication and collaboration, as well as critical research. Instructors in our programs have echoed the learning objectives that this assignment achieves in our end of term surveys.
As Dr. McDowell explains in his talk, Jimmy Wales’ vision for Wikipedia, for it to present an opportunity for “every single human being [to] freely share in the sum of all human knowledge,” is a similar sentiment to what drew him to become a teacher in the first place. Instilling that same drive in students makes for a valuable experience for all involved.
Watch the full talk here: