Almost a decade into the Wikipedia Student Program, it can be easy to take the immense impact of the Wikipedia assignment for granted. Millions of words added by close to ten thousand students term after term has become the norm, and Spring 2019 was no exception. Almost 8,500 students from 400 courses across the U.S. and Canada contributed over 6.5 million words to Wikipedia between the months of January and June. We know that the Wikipedia Student Program brings a significant number of new editors and content to Wikipedia, and Spring 2019 again bore that out. Inspiring as those numbers are, they capture just a tiny glimpse of why this program and assignment are so special.
Energizing Students, Faculty, and Wikipedia
We know that the Wikipedia assignment is a departure for most faculty and students from more traditional writing assignments. Knowing that your work has the potential to be seen by millions can be daunting, but it energizes students and faculty in a way that few assignments can. As one instructor wrote, “I feel so energized by this assignment that I could talk about it for hours. Every time the students published a new or revised article, I sent an email to interested colleagues in the university to share the link. In that way, I energized the students and the community.” Another instructor described her students’ enthusiasm for the Wikipedia assignment as “infectious.”
The public facing nature of the Wikipedia assignment is indeed a strong motivator for many students, but even more compelling for many students is its relevance to their lives. “Editing is a bland topic,” wrote one instructor, “especially for an editing course at 8 a.m. The Wikipedia projects helped to make the course content relevant for the students.”
It’s one thing to discuss the inequities in representation of women, minorities, and other traditionally marginalized populations, it’s another to have the chance to remedy those inequities. Students can write about people who look and sound like themselves or who perhaps come from similar backgrounds. In the words of one instructor, “Most of my students are female, and I always have a few students of color. When they write about a figure they identify with among women and minority psychologists, it gives them pride to help give proper recognition to someone who has not been fully appreciated in the past.” Another instructor reported, “I teach at a public school with a large number of immigrant students, working class students, and first generation college students. One of my hopes for this assignment was that they would feel empowered by the experience of editing Wikipedia and creating knowledge that other people would find and learn from. I was happy when they submitted their reflective essays to see that many of them specifically mentioned that the assignment was exciting, refreshing, and empowering compared to traditional essays, because they were creating something that many people would see and learn from.”
The energy of the Wikipedia assignment also lies in its interactive nature. As one instructor recounted, “An editor responded to a student’s request for feedback with ‘That’s beautiful. Simply excellent work,’ and thanked her for her contribution. She wrote in her reflective essay that she was proud of her work, and I certainly was, too. What a wonderful project!” Getting a good grade and positive feedback from your instructor is satisfying, but receiving recognition from a total stranger is what sets the Wikipedia assignment apart. One instructor put it best when they remarked, “My students learned important lessons from the feedback they received from the Wikipedia community. I try to teach these lessons, but there is nothing quite like the experience to make an impact.”
It’s not only students that are energized by the Wikipedia assignment. “I was burning out on grading term papers and exams before adopting Wikipedia writing projects,” wrote one instructor. “I feel much more invested now, and proud that my students are contributing to public knowledge.” Another instructor noted, “I feel intellectually energized. Having learned how to ‘do’ Wikipedia, I have begun to contribute to articles on many subjects.”
The vast majority of instructors we support are also new to editing Wikipedia. This often puts them on a similar footing with their students, a reality that can both level the playing field while generating excitement. “The Wikipedia assignment made me an active participant in the learning process; I was not just teaching, I was learning the ropes with the students (how to be a Wikipedian), and that made the experience more exciting for me in ways that I think carried over to my interactions with students”.
Forging Connections and Building Relationships
The collaborative nature of the Wikipedia assignment is evident, but these interactions, while rich and valuable, take place online. What’s not immediately obvious is how the Wikipedia assignment helps to build relationships offline as well. “The Wikipedia project helped me to develop a stronger rapport with my students,” noted one instructor, “and it has piqued the interest of other faculty and students in my department.” Another instructor communicated, “The articles represent faculty-student collaborations. The students have no previous experience working with a faculty member to produce writing that is published. The assignment alters their view of what is possible. They take enormous pride in their accomplishment.”
Several instructors remarked how the Wikipedia assignment helped them to make new professional connections both within and outside of their institutions. According to one instructor, “The Wikipedia assignment helped me bridge a gap between science content and issues of diversity and representation, aiding my teaching collaboration with faculty in other departments.” Others reported that the Wikipedia assignment helped them to connect with librarians and other faculty interested in projects within the open knowledge sphere. Still others remarked how the Wikipedia assignment has helped them to connect via conferences, workshops, and other professional opportunities. When instructors adopt the Wikipedia assignment they open the door to a community of like-minded individuals who see the value of open pedagogy and instructional experimentation.
One assignment to rule them all
While the Wikipedia assignment is helping instructors to develop more robust relationships both with their students and with other members of the academy, the assignment itself brings together some of the most critical skills necessary for today’s students. According to one instructor, “There are few assignments that incorporate all of MY course goals (teaching critical thinking, practicing research skills, writing intensive work, facilitating collaboration between students, teaching practical skills, and incorporating equity work) in a succinct manner. The cherry on top was the degree to which students engaged with the project and created thoughtful and significant edits (which in many cases either significantly improved/changed the Wikipedia pages or created totally new and original content).” Other instructors remarked that in addition to imparting subject matter expertise, the Wikipedia assignment helped their students think about how knowledge is constructed and how that is reflected on Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia assignment is by no means the only assignment, but it’s the only one that allows students to gain subject matter expertise and important skills, all while improving a site that the world has come to rely on for daily inquiries, both large and small. We’re looking forward to continuing this important work in the coming Fall 2019 term!
Interested in adapting one of our Wikipedia assignment templates to fit your course? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for all you need to know to get started.