When the nature of an assignment leads to discovery, not simply to compliance, the learning becomes the students’ own.
Dr. Gardner Campbell began teaching Wikipedia writing assignments at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018. Here he shares the results that he says have “far exceeded” his expectations.
For over two decades, from writing projects in freshman composition classes to blogging, I’ve experimented with having students publish their work to the Web. My experience, supported by the research I’ve seen, tells me that students often tend to write better—more fluently, more imaginatively, and with greater intrinsic motivation—when they write for audiences outside the classroom, and in particular, audiences besides the professor alone. I’ve also found that asking students to publish their work to the web increases opportunities for them to practice metacognition—that is, thinking about what they do as they do it. And I believe, very strongly, that universities should encourage students and faculty alike, whenever possible, to contribute their work to the Web as a public resource, and for the common good.
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard Samantha Weald’s presentation on Wiki Education at a Fordham University teaching and learning conference. I avidly explored the Wiki Education website at wikiedu.org. And this past academic year, I started my work with Wiki Education.
I had long been interested in asking students to contribute to Wikipedia as part of their work in my classes. Projects like Jon Beasley-Murray’s “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” were inspiring, and I’d long used Jon Udell’s famous “Heavy Metal Umlaut Band” screencast to demonstrate some of Wikipedia’s more remarkable properties. But it was Wiki Education that provided me with the framework and support I needed to make the leap into requiring Wikipedia work in my classes. The results have far exceeded anything I could have imagined. For me and for those students who commit themselves to the effort, the experience has been deeply rewarding, despite or even because of the inevitable bumps in the road.
Prior to incorporating Wikipedia work as whole-class assignment, I’d experimented with offering Wikipedia editing as an option for a final project. In the spring of 2018 I forged ahead with two students who expressed interest. One caught fire and soon became an accomplished Wikipedian. Her article was on the 17th-century English poet Emilia Lanier, whose proto-feminist poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum we had studied in some detail in our class on early modern English poetry. My student wanted the Wikipedia article to better reflect the importance of Lanier’s work, and thereby also to increase the visibility of underrepresented voices in the English Renaissance. The evident joy my student took in her work, connecting with the Wikipedia community as she made her own vital contributions, was infectious and revelatory. I was convinced, and I was hooked.
Testing the waters in this way was useful, although I quickly realized that without Wiki Education’s affordances I’d never be able to scale up Wikipedia work beyond one or two students. So I took the plunge, contacted Wiki Education, gave them the information I had on the course I had in mind, and soon received their strong encouragement and access to their free provisions for guiding and structuring the work I had in mind for my Mythology and Folklore class for the Fall 2018 semester. I was eager to try to bring the pedagogical benefits I had witnessed in this early iteration to an entire group of students across an entire semester. Wiki Education’s Dashboard, training modules, and especially their staff would be crucial to this effort.
1. Mythology and Folklore, Fall 2018
The class I chose for my first all-in with Wikipedia was a 300-level class in Mythology and Folklore, cross-listed as both English and Anthropology. Rather than attempt a survey of either mythology or folklore (daunting and probably impossible), I decided to structure the semester around the many cultural, historical, thematic, and aesthetic intersections between the tale of Beauty and the Beast and the myth of Cupid and Psyche. At the same time, I wanted to give students the chance to take what we were learning in our deep dive and apply it to a parallel project representing their own particular interests. Wikipedia seemed a perfect resource for that aspect of our work together. While we were studying one myth and fairy tale in depth, students would also have the opportunity to branch out into areas of their own choosing and work on Wikipedia articles on those topics of interest.
The learning that resulted from the Wikipedia assignment was often deep, always vitally important, and sometimes uneven. I could see these results as the semester unfolded, and my sense of things was confirmed in many instances by the reflective blog posts in which students described their experience of the assignment. You can see a collection of those reflections on our public class website.
This Wikipedia assignment was one part of a larger ecosystem of assignments and practices that included regular blogging, online annotation using Hypothesis, an exam, and varied activities during our class meetings. Variety, intensity, and mutually reinforcing experiences and assignments are the life’s blood of any course of study, and I soon learned that adding Wikipedia to the mix stirred things up in quite wonderful and often unpredictable ways. For example, students reported that they had used the library much more extensively than ever before. Some had visited the stacks for the first time. Others had spoken with a reference librarian for the first time. I found that while students had remembered some of what they’d been told as freshmen, mainly that they should use a proprietary database to locate scholarly resources, most of them were so used to writing critical analysis papers (often the night before they were due) that they had not learned how to do research beyond the task of finding corroboration for what they had already decided to say. And of course the night-before habit meant that most of them were unfamiliar with the messy, inefficient, and time-consuming task of real research, with all its blind alleys and false steps and interesting but ultimately irrelevant byways. They were also unfamiliar with the way real research could lead them to change their minds about something they thought they already understood. And it was the Wikipedia assignment, more than any other assignment I’ve used in decades of teaching college, that revealed these things to the students themselves.
That self-realization is where the deepest learning resides. I’ve always urged and sometimes required students to talk to a librarian. I’ve demonstrated search strategies of all kinds across multiple databases. I’ve done my best in countless office conversations to nudge and cajole students into deeper engagement with the scholarly record. And sometimes it’s worked. But the Wikipedia assignment, and the mission of making a substantial contribution to the sum total of the world’s available knowledge in a helpful, interesting, and documented fashion, seems to have turned a teacher’s lesson into an occasion for student self-discovery. That’s the magic formula, in my experience. When the nature of an assignment leads to discovery, not simply to compliance (“what do you want?”), the learning becomes the students’ own. They internalize the lesson. They understand something more about themselves as learners, and something deep about how their learning connects them to the learning the makes up civilization itself—heady lessons indeed.
The uneven part was partly my fault, partly the students’ fault, and partly the fault of schooling itself. I wanted the choice of topic to be their own, and I still want that, but I found that some students needed much more help than others in learning to listen to their own interests and find a rewarding and workable area for their contributions. I also found that no matter how much I talked about the assignment, and no matter what internal deadlines I set up, some students persisted in waiting until the last minute to begin their work—a disastrous strategy. Working on research at the last minute means there’s no time to engage with the mess, no time to refine one’s strategies, no time to get help. Saying brightly vague things (aka bullshitting) in a traditional “term paper” format just won’t cut it when one is responsible for making a reliable, verifiable public contribution to the world’s knowledge.
By the end of the semester, I knew I would use a Wikipedia assignment again in a course for my spring semester. I could see that students who committed to the assignment felt a sense of personal connection to the work as they invested themselves in the article they had selected. I saw that these students felt their work was adding something to the world, something that went beyond the boundaries of a semester and a course. I was especially pleased to see that many of them found the experience revelatory: they came to a deeper understanding of what a library represents and what it offers them as learners, and they began to see what it means not only to use the Web but to help build within it. That last lesson is a crucial component of so-called “digital fluency,” and one that in my experience is typically neglected.
No account of that fall semester would be complete without a special thanks to Wiki Education staff member Shalor Toncray, our liaison, who worked with me and with the students diligently, expertly, and with great good humor through the whole journey. She even held an online “office hours” discussion that I recorded and made available for students who couldn’t participate at the scheduled time. Since it was my first time out, I benefited as much from her advice and expertise as my students did. In fact, I still do.
2. Form and Theory of Poetry, Spring 2019
So it was that for my Form and Theory of Poetry class in the spring I continued my work with Wiki Education. This 400-level class looks at poetry as a making, exploring various writers, eras, genres, and forms as a way to ask what poetry represents when considered as verbal art. The goals are specific but the path to those goals offers excitingly varied possibilities. As I pondered how I’d use Wikipedia this time, I thought hard about how to integrate that work more fully within a large and comprehensive assignment.
For it’s always a challenge, given the structures of formal schooling, to foster a truly integrated sense of the work. From the students’ point of view, school work often appears to be little more than one thing after another. They find that frustrating, but they also conspire with such structures as a way of managing their lives and, at times, holding opportunities for change and growth at arms’ length as they march toward a degree. The Wikipedia assignment in the fall course had clearly disrupted many of those expectations and habits, in ways that in my judgment were very positive. Could I amplify those benefits with an even tighter integration of Wikipedia into the syllabus?
Well, yes and no—though once again, I learned a great deal in the effort, and the students who fully committed themselves to the work as well as the idea of the work learned a great deal too.
I called the project “Adopt A Lyric!” I kept the element of student choice but this time made it central to the entire project, with the Wikipedia work as one facet of the project along with a critical paper, a thorough analysis of the poem’s structure and prosody, and a recorded oral performance of the poem posted to their individual blog sites. I hoped that making the Wikipedia work clearly aligned with, but different from, the more familiar work of critical analysis would help students understand what these different modes of research and writing had to offer them as learners. I also hoped they’d be less likely to submit purely critical analysis to Wikipedia instead of the vetted secondary research appropriate to an encyclopedia. Finally, I hoped the idea of a semester-long project would encourage my students to start all their work earlier, including the Wikipedia work.
For their adopted lyric, students could choose any poem in our class anthology, Norton’s Seagull Reader. As before, I wanted students to have a wide array of choices and to be led by their own interests. As before, I found that some students found that freedom exhilarating, while some found it perplexing, and some others simply avoided the work of considering and choosing their poem for as long as possible. This time, I quickly learned that many students’ choices would entail beginning an entirely new Wikipedia article from scratch. I warned students that beginning a new article presented significant challenges beyond contributing to an established article, and that choosing a very recent poem would add even more challenges to the task of finding information and constructing an article that would pass muster. Some of them heeded those warnings and some did not. As before, some consulted Wiki Education liaison Shalor Toncray for guidance, and some did not.
In some cases, the task of constructing a new article, left to the last minute by students who were already having trouble navigating other course requirements, ended in articles being deleted—and for good cause. In other cases, however, constructing an entirely new article led students to do better, more detailed, and more committed work than I had hoped for (and my hopes are always high). Beginning an article meant that their contribution was foundational, and watching the Wikipedia community take their beginnings and help them grow and flourish was inspirational.
One student found that his article on Theodore Roethke’s frequently anthologized poem “My Papa’s Waltz” was welcomed by his fellow Wikipedians as a vitally important new article, one that was well-written and comprehensive enough to justify a B-class rating right away, a conspicuous accomplishment indeed. In a blog post titled “My Poem is My Poem Now,” this student demonstrated just how powerful his work had become for him:
I’m proud of my article. A part of me wants to go back and add more to the article…. At the beginning I didn’t know where to start. I read through critical analysis’s [sic], hidden on the aisle floor in between the library shelves, for hours looking for individual quotes; and I never [before] put that much time or research into an assignment or exhausted myself to that extent for a school project.
There were other inspiring successes. Several students reflected on how grateful they were for the guidance and welcoming spirit of the Wikipedia community. In “Activity on my Wikipedia Page!”, one student wrote excitedly of the experience:
Ah! Since publishing my Wikipedia article [on “Root Cellar”] I have called my parents to tell them to look it up and showed the article to my friends. Having an article on Wikipedia that I created has become a feat I am more proud of than I anticipated. My greatest worry while working on my article was that Wikipedia would simply take the article down. It seems that has not happened yet! There has even been some activity on the page! Some thoughtful people more acquainted with Wikipedia have made a few changes to the page, fixing a couple of things I was unsure about and providing feedback on others….
Creating a Wikipedia page was most certainly a singular learning experience for me; I haven’t done anything like that before. Seeing the revisions made to the page, for me, compounds the learning experience as I can see the errors I made pointed out by people who want to help the page I made better. In retrospect, some of my blunders seem obvious, but I am considerably proud of the accomplishment in itself as a first try. Were I to attempt to create another article, I now have infinitely more experience and a much better idea of how such a thing should be done.
Not every article was a success. A few were deleted, and justly so. At least one was so poorly written that, while it wasn’t deleted, it was flagged right away by several editors. One well-researched and well-written article was flagged, with good reason, as being too close to an argumentative essay. I’m sure I could have managed these problems better. I’m still learning a great deal about Wikipedia myself, especially how to find the right balance of interest, neutrality, and stylistic uniformity. (I confess that Wikipedia’s “logical quotation style” is a big hurdle, as it does not conform to either US or UK English conventions I’ve learned.) All of that said, I’m satisfied that the project design for “Adopt A Lyric!” is sound, and I’m deeply gratified by the way Wikipedia work can be an integral part of the project.
It’s been a fascinating year of working with Wiki Education. I have learned how much I still don’t know about Wikipedia, despite having used, studied, and edited it for many years. I have found myself drawn more deeply into the fascinating (and sometimes vexing) community of Wikipedians. Even more importantly, I have seen how transformative working with Wikipedia can be for my students. They begin to understand how a world of connected information can work. They experience the thrill of making useful and valued additions to that world. They can see their own contributions to civilization emerge as a part of their learning. These were always my goals for each class meeting, for each assignment, indeed for everything I do as a scholar and a teacher. What I learned this year, though, is how working with Wikipedia, especially in the environment of Wiki Education’s marvelous online affordances and expert personal assistance, can catalyze and scale up deeper student engagement and learning. Wiki Education and Wikipedia have brought my classrooms closer than ever before to the lofty goal Jerome Bruner describes: of giving our students the opportunity for “informed powers of mind and a sense of potency in action … the only instruments we can give the [student] that will be invariable across the transformations of time and circumstance” (“After John Dewey, What?” in On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, expanded edition, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 122).
For all of that, I am grateful—and I’m looking forward to doing it all again in the fall.
Interested in adapting the Wikipedia assignment for your course? Check out our free assignment templates, tools, and student trainings at teach.wikiedu.org.