“Wikipedia’s popularity and reach mean that archaeologists should actively engage with the website by adding and improving archaeological content.”
Academia is changing its mind about Wikipedia. Peer-reviewed research studies published in the last few years have found value in teaching students how to evaluate the site, rather than turning them away from using it altogether. One such study from 2019 conducted by Katherine Grillo and Daniel Contreras (published by Cambridge University Press) narrows in on teaching with Wikipedia in archaeology courses. The paper concludes that having students write Wikipedia articles related to archaeological course topics:
- brings academic information out of the silo and into the hands of the public,
- helps correct misinformation prevalent in mainstream narratives of history, and
- gives students skills to communicate what they’re learning to non-specialist audiences.
“We conclude that Wikipedia’s utopian mission aligns with many of the goals of public archaeology and argue that archaeology has much to gain by engaging with—rather than ignoring or even shunning—Wikipedia.”
The importance of public engagement
Like with many academic disciplines, archaeologists are seeking new ways to engage the public in their field. “Without public engagement, awareness and funding of archaeological research and conservation of archaeological sites are unlikely to find continued popular support,” the paper states.
Why is Wikipedia the answer?
With 500 million readers each month, Wikipedia offers a massive and effective public educational tool. “The publics whom archaeologists seek to reach now overwhelmingly rely on Wikipedia as a source of basic information,” Dr. Grillo and Dr. Contreras assert, citing Schroeder 2018:122–124.
Wikipedia presents opportunities not only to improve coverage of archaeology in a publicly accessible place, but also to correct misinformation by pointing people to academic knowledge when they seek information about popular culture. Students of archaeology can improve a Wikipedia article about Indiana Jones, for example, by linking to articles about the real archaeological sites.
“The need for accurate and widely available information about archaeology is acute, especially considering our discipline’s notable problems with the proliferation of pseudoscientific theories in the public realm (Ancient Aliens, Legends of the Lost, and similar television programs are obvious and egregious offenders),” write Dr. Grillo and Dr. Contreras.
How do we bring more archaeological information to Wikipedia?
Students are well-positioned to do this public outreach work on behalf of the archaeological field. They’re already consulting academic sources to write research papers. A Wikipedia writing assignment can channel that work into a public place. Students also remember what it’s like learning about these topics for the first time and often have a good perspective on how to speak about them to a non-specialist audience. The process of synthesizing course topics also “invest[s] and immerse[s] students in the production of archaeological content.”
Student learning outcomes
“By actively editing Wikipedia pages themselves, students improve their abilities to critically evaluate problematic Wikipedia pages, and they gain experience in reviewing academic literature,” the paper concludes. “Student motivation and dedication to producing quality writing is overall high, given the understanding that thousands of people will be reading their work.”
“Given the growing emphasis on job training in higher education, activities such as participation in the Wiki Education program that both provide marketable skills and promote media literacy, may be particularly valuable.”
It’s now Dr. Grillo’s fourth term teaching a Wikipedia writing assignment. Since she began in 2016, the total impact her students have made on Wikipedia is this: They’ve added 69,000 words and 900 references to 70 articles. They’ve created 18 new articles. And all of that work has been viewed by Wikipedia’s readers more than 3 million times.
“In practice, taking advantage of Wiki Education has proven effective both as pedagogy and as public outreach.”
Want to get involved? Wiki Education can help.
With Wiki Education’s free assignment management tools and student trainings, instructors new to Wikipedia can feel well-equipped to guide their students in editing assignments. Visit teach.wikiedu.org to access those resources.
Read more perspectives from instructors who have done this assignment here. Explore other research studies here.