When students become experts and experts become students

By on March 22, 2019

When students become experts and experts become students

By on March 22, 2019

When students become experts and experts become students

Now that Wiki Education is regularly supporting around 400 Wikipedia assignments each term, it would be easy for us to simply leave well enough alone. Term after term, the vast majority of instructors (over 90%) indicate that they will run another Wikipedia assignment with many of those making it a mainstay of their pedagogical repertoire. A 90% satisfaction rate is difficult to argue with, and as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fixing it, however, is what we do, broken or not.

Each term, we gain new insights into how to improve our Wikipedia Student Program for instructors, students, and Wikipedia. Fall 2018 was no exception, and while it may seem a distant memory at this point, we’re still unpacking what we learned from yet another successful term.

The numbers

It’s a testament to the success of the Wikipedia assignment and of the Wikipedia Student Program that the following numbers are business as usual here at Wiki Education. Nevertheless, we’re incredibly proud of our Fall 2018 students and grateful to their instructors who shepherded them through the often challenging process of contributing to Wikipedia.

In Fall 2018, 7,884 students from 384 courses across the U.S. and Canada collectively added 6.19 million words to Wikipedia. They contributed to 7070 articles and created 812 entirely new entries that were viewed 276 million times in the term alone. That’s about 2,000 5-7 page term papers that would have been read once by one person and long since forgotten. Instead, millions of people can now read about topics ranging from aboriginal whaling to Z-DNA.

From student to expert

The Wikipedia assignment brings together several critical learning objectives that make it a uniquely valuable experience for students. As one student noted, “There is a lot that goes into writing and editing for Wikipedia and it is pretty intense. It took students in the class a few weeks to write one paragraph each because of all of the rules and regulations that need to be followed. It took me a while to even figure out how to write my first sentence because I was worried about close paraphrasing.”

When contributing to Wikipedia as a course assignment, students are not only accountable to their instructor, but to the whole world. “The concept of editing on Wikipedia,” wrote one student, “is similar to preparing a presentation on a topic of interest, which would then be given to the class; Wikipedia, though, is essentially a presentation for the entire world. Anyone, anywhere, for any reason, might read my article. As a complete biology nerd who loves to teach others, I found this to be immensely exciting.”

Students do not only feel accountable to the public at large, but to their fellow editors – either other students in their class or members of the greater Wikipedia editing community. They learn that knowledge is constructed through collaboration and revision. According to one student, “I learned a lot about scientific research, [and] the peer review process… Most other projects don’t have this type of review process, nor do they have the same, practical final result that can actually be used and built upon by others.” In contributing to Wikipedia, students expand their circle of peers to include the whole of the Wikipedia editing community, and as a result, students have the chance to feel like real experts in a field. As one student put it, “Granting students the opportunity to not only learn something new but double and triple check information already presented to the internet world, could be incredibly beneficial and does not take someone with multiple degrees or expertise but rather someone who is willing to learn and put in the effort.”

This fact is not lost on instructors as well. “Students never understand the value of this until the end of the semester,” remarked one instructor. “They feel empowered. Wikipedia has allowed my students to disseminate research. This part of the research process has never been accessible to students until now.”

In fact, the term “power” showed up multiple times on our survey of Fall 2018 instructors. In contributing to Wikipedia, students realize that they are in a position of power in having relatively unfettered access to information largely off limits to the greater population. They also learn that in sharing the information to which they have privileged access, they can ultimately empower others. As one linguistics instructor noted, “As a social science, linguistics faces a complex struggle to simultaneously achieve academic rigor and empower the people and groups that provide the data for the science. Some in our field have started to recognize the value of a platform like Wikipedia to be a standard way to communicate the basics of what we know about the world’s language diversity to the general public… Thus, in a very tangible way, this assignment allows for knowledge sequestered in our facilities to make it out into the world at unprecedented levels, all while enabling our undergrad students to be the drivers of this process.”

From instructor to student

Students are not the only ones who learn from and feel empowered by the Wikipedia assignment. “I enjoyed the chance to act as the person advising them and not the person judging them,” commented one instructor. “It empowered me as an instructor and I think it may have empowered them as students to.” In fact, several of our instructors remarked on how the Wikipedia assignment shifted power dynamics in their classes.

As one instructor wrote, “It allowed me to show the students that even my own work and writing on Wikipedia was under scrutiny and edited by others. It allowed me to express how academic writing works and is a collaborative process.” Another remarked that the Wikipedia assignment “made me more aware of my own biases and forced me to communicate much more clearly.” By contributing to Wikipedia, students develop an “authoritative” voice, blurring the line between expert and non-expert and between instructor and student.

Other instructors noted that the Wikipedia assignment moved the focus away from grades. In the words of one instructor, “It was great for forcing the students to think about their audience. Since that audience was more than just the person in control of their grades, it allowed me as the instructor to focus on advising them about quality, not just what they needed to do to get the grade they wanted.” Yet another instructor remarked that, “I found the students are more engaged in the Wikipedia project than other traditional projects because they know all their works will be criticized by experts or editors and will be read/utilized by anyone in the world. Instead of just finishing an assignment in the class, some students really spend time to edit the pages and thinking to contribute their knowledge to the world. I think this is a good thing for the students to realize that they are part of this world’s educational program, not just simply aiming at getting a good grade for the class.”

Often instructors are learning how to contribute to Wikipedia right alongside their students. While experts in their own particular fields, most of our instructors come to Wikipedia as total novices much like their students. It’s a learning process for all involved. One instructor put it best when they wrote, “It helped me to become more confident in my ability to figure out issues on the fly. It also helped me surrender some control over every single aspect of a project and give more agency to students, even by allowing them to make mistakes.” Now with our professional development courses, instructors can take an even deeper dive into editing Wikipedia themselves if they so choose.

Beyond the classroom

Contributing to Wikipedia is a transformative experience for students and instructors alike. While most college assignments begin and end with the term, the Wikipedia assignment lives on not only in the content on Wikipedia, but in the pride students take in their work. Knowing that anyone in the world might read your contribution is incredibly satisfying, but being able to show that work to your inner circle is even more rewarding. “My family was really excited when I showed them my edits,” reported one student. “There was a very proud mom who didn’t exactly understand the content but appreciated the fact that my work is available for anyone to see who is willing to inquire.”

The Wikipedia assignment can often take on a very personal meaning for some. It can provide students with the chance to write about the topics they care about most, whether it be their identity, regional issues, or hobbies. Capturing this sentiment, one of our students reported the following anecdote, “when I told my dad about this assignment he showed interest and asked me questions about the process and the inside work in Wikipedia. I realized during our conversation that I had learned so much about Wikipedia and I could certainly defend its integrity. At the end of our conversation my dad smiled and proudly said “¿Así que ahora todo el mundo puede ver lo que escribiste?” (So now everyone can see what you wrote?) Contributing to Wikipedia has been extremely rewarding, especially knowing that my small contribution may help shape the way people look at Latin America.”

For most students and instructors, the Wikipedia assignment is a significant departure from any other assignment. It forces students to rethink how they interact with a site that they have likely been visiting for years and to reformulate how they think about information production, distribution, and consumption. It’s by no means easy and can even be daunting. As one student wrote, “Thank you for challenging our class to go outside our comfort zones with the Wikipedia project!” And thank you to our students and faculty who partner with us each term to make knowledge more accurate, accessible, and available.


Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for all you need to incorporate an assignment like this into your own course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.