Looking back at Fall 2019: engagement, service, and excitement

Wikipedia Student Program Manager Helaine Blumenthal

Wiki Education now regularly supports around 400 courses each term. With thousands of students adding millions of words to Wikipedia every academic year, you’d think we’d know everything there is to know about the Wikipedia assignment, from what it takes to be successful to what students get out of the project. But each term brings its own novelties, outlook, and learnings. Fall 2019 was no exception.

Tackling bias and correcting the record

Despite its more than six million articles, Wikipedia is still rife with content gaps. No where is this more apparent than in subjects related to women, minorities, and other underrepresented populations. Increasing equity of representation is currently one of Wiki Education’s chief strategic goals, and we’re incredibly proud of our instructors and students who are continually helping us to close Wikipedia’s content gaps.

According to our Fall 2019 instructor survey, 80% of instructors felt that the Wikipedia assignment made their students more socially and culturally aware. In learning how to contribute to Wikipedia, their students learned how to identify bias and to understand the role that bias plays in knowledge production and consumption. Similarly, 97% of instructors reported that the Wikipedia assignment helped their students develop a sense of digital citizenship. In other words, in contributing to Wikipedia, students not only learned how to catch bias, but that they felt a responsibility to remedy inequities and ensure that Wikipedia had the best coverage possible of subjects that are either traditionally underrepresented, misrepresented, or completely missing from the record.

Filling in content gaps on Wikipedia is only one piece of the equity puzzle. Who contributes to Wikipedia is just as important as what they contribute. Since its inception, Wikipedia’s editor base has largely been majority white and male accounting for many of Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps and issues surrounding systemic bias. For years, we’ve known that roughly 60% of the students in our program are women, and this year, we also collected data about the instructors who decide to run Wikipedia assignments. Based on our Fall 2019 survey, about 65% of the instructors in the Student Program are women. This figure is far higher than academia at large where only 49% of faculty are women, and only 38% of tenured positions are held by women. Not only are we introducing more women to the Wikipedia editing community, but we’re hopefully breaking down barriers that women still face in academia more widely by allowing them to explore different avenues of scholarship.

The Wikipedia assignment as community service

While for some, learning to identify and remedy bias is an intellectual endeavor, for others, it is an act of community service. Many of our instructors and students come to see the Wikipedia assignment as a public service. As one political science instructor wrote, “This has been a wonderful way for me to embed service learning (a high-impact practice) into my course.” Another instructor wrote the following, “Because I chose to have them focus on authors and illustrators of African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature, almost without exception, the students felt that 1) they learned a lot about someone about whose life they knew nothing about before even if they had read the author’s work or seen their illustrations in the past as children or in their library work and 2) they had done a great service for racial equity to the international community because of improving information access about African American authors and illustrators who write for young people.”

The work students do on Wikipedia can truly have a global reach. “This assignment helped create a digital presence for Lebanese and Arab authors who were almost unknown to the younger generations because they had no digital presence,” remarked one instructor. “It helped contribute to digitizing the Lebanese literary heritage and place Lebanon’s literary heritage on the global map.” Another instructor wrote about how one of her students added a section on Islamic contributions to the Manuscript article. The article had previously only contained sections on Western influences. This single act was “a powerful example of how students can contribute to an ongoing effort to decolonize and globalize the field of art history.”

As one instructor put it, “Students mentioned that this assignment helped them also gain an understanding of activism beyond “the streets.” “This truly was an impactful assignment for many of them!” Though the Wikipedia assignment takes place online, it’s fundamentally an act of engagement – engagement with knowledge and the world that shapes how knowledge is produced and dispersed. And this is truly what it means to become a digital citizen!

Energizing learning

Contributing to Wikipedia can be a scary proposition for students and instructors alike. Students seldom write for anyone other than their professors or TAs, and instructors worry about the vulnerabilities inherent in writing for a public audience. While taking those first baby Wikipedia steps might be difficult, the excitement that the Wikipedia assignment engenders is palpable. According to one student, “I’m going to start this with some real transparency: I had a deep, dark sense of dread when it hit me that I would have to edit a real, live Wikipedia page. I mean, come on… a real one? Not some dummy Wikipedia page that would be on our blog, that only our professors could see? No, I would have to make my edits for the entire world (literally, the entire world) to see. Would anyone really even see them? Does anyone really care about 5G wireless technology other than my nerd self? Once it came down to it, editing was a lot easier than I thought. I have always wondered how in the world to edit a Wikipedia article, and I am still so surprised at how easy it was. The amount of work that the Wikipedia community does to maintain itself is pretty remarkable. Though I do not anticipate that I will become an avid Wikipedia editor, going forward, I will honestly not hesitate to fix any mistakes or add any facts I find relevant to articles. The training helped me be prepared, and it wasn’t as scary as I thought. It actually kind of made me feel like I’m contributing to the greater good, and isn’t that what we’re all here for, anyway?”

The project is equally invigorating for instructors. As one instructor reported, “I think I was a better instructor this semester because I was excited about this assignment.” Another remarked, “I am so grateful to Wiki Education for this opportunity to learn how to contribute to public scholarship via Wikipedia. The process has been intellectually invigorating and I know it has inspired many of my students as well. THANK YOU!” Yet another instructor wrote, “This assignment has rejuvenated me and given me a lot of ideas about the role of writers and scientists in the world!”

In learning to contribute to Wikipedia, students gain a number of important practical skills, from digital literacy to online collaboration, but it’s often the more intangible aspects of this project that make it truly worthwhile. As usual, our instructors put it best. “Do it, don’t chicken out. It’s daunting but I am smiling from ear to ear seeing how much the topics I care about now have better coverage on Wikipedia.”

The numbers

Though numbers only tell half the story, we’re proud of them nonetheless! In Fall 2019, we worked with 388 courses in fields ranging from Advanced Ecology and Evolution to US Women’s History. Roughly 7,500 students enrolled in the program, and collectively they added close to six million words on Wikipedia across 6,450 articles. Additionally, they added almost 60,000 references and created 705 new entries. Throughout the term alone, their work was viewed close to 200 million times!

We know that one of the strengths of the Wikipedia assignment is its public facing nature. As one instructor wrote, “The assignment fostered a sense of pride and ownership in my students, of having contributed to a lasting academic legacy that was published and available via a google search.” Rather than being read by one person at the end of the term, our students work was viewed millions of times and will continue to be viewed well beyond the end of the class. Millions now have access to information that would have otherwise remained within the walls of the ivory tower, and we have our students and instructors to thank.


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