Spring 2020: Reflections on a term to remember

A time of transition

To say that the spring 2020 academic term was unlike any other is a gross understatement. The pandemic abruptly upended normal life, and the students and instructors in our program were no exception. Mid-way through the term, just as most of our students were about to begin drafting their contributions and moving into the article main space, campuses closed nationwide, and students had to return home for the remainder of the academic year. Amid this turmoil, Wiki Education was thankfully able to continue providing uninterrupted support, and we reached out to all of our program participants to see how we could help.

Despite the unprecedented disruptions that the spring 2020 term saw, our students still did outstanding work, and Wiki Education supported 409 courses — our largest number to date. In fact, we quickly learned that the Wikipedia assignment became a lifeline for many of our instructors as they struggled to transition to remote learning. As one instructor wrote, “It actually was a perfect thing that I already had this scheduled and in the syllabus. It gave us an online component before we ‘needed’ it!” Others decided to run a Wikipedia assignment as a way to keep students engaged as their courses went online. We were truly grateful that we could provide some degree of stability for our instructors and students amid a tumultuous time, and despite it all, our students made substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

Across the 409 courses we supported in Spring 2020, almost 7,500 students collectively contributed more than 5 million words to Wikipedia, edited more than 6,000 articles, and created more than 500 entirely new entries. They covered subjects ranging from African American History to Prokaryotic Processes, and their work was collectively viewed almost 270 million times in the term alone.

A source of empowerment

We were also gratified to see that the Wikipedia assignment continued to be a source of motivation and empowerment for our students, as reported by instructors in our post-term survey. One instructor recounted the following anecdote: “Because of the pandemic, our university library was slower than usual. One student, frustrated that one of the books she wanted to read for the Wikipedia assignment was not immediately available at our university library, got on a bicycle and went to borrow a book in a city library in her town. I’ve never seen a student do that. I was happy to hear that, though I tried to hide my reaction in front of the student!” Another instructor reported, “One thing the struck me is I actually had a student came up and thank me for assigning this as their final. I was floored because, I’ve never had a student actually thank me for assigning them work or a final. This student really loved writing for Wikipedia and showing off their work to their family.”

Wiki Education has long been committed to filling in Wikipedia’s content gaps and especially those related to issues of equity, and we’re pleased to see that many of our students were also motivated by a desire to fill in Wikipedia’s equity gaps. “The project,” noted one instructor, “also increased their understanding of representation — who is included, who is not, and whose absence we notice. In many ways this grew out of the understanding that absences need to be addressed and that information is power (the Women in Red project). So thank you.”

Many of our students work on biographies of women to help close Wikipedia’s gender gap. One such student described their experience writing about Andrea Ivory: “Personally, I learned a lot when I was younger just going on random Wikipedia rabbit holes. It was really cool doing a deep-dive into Andrea Ivory’s backstory and working with my teammates to prove that she is, in fact, well known. And, more importantly, her work should be spotlighted regardless of how much media coverage she gets. Keeping my own experiences in mind, I was excited to go live with an article about such an important figure, because you never know who’s Wikipedia rabbit hole session may lead them to know more about Andrea Ivory!”

Just as important as filling in Wikipedia’s equity gaps is making the population that engages with Wikipedia editing more equitable. The students who participate in our program are representative of college campuses more broadly, and roughly 60% of our students are women. More surprising, however, is the number of female instructors who decide to run Wikipedia assignments. About 73% of our new instructors and about 60% of our returning instructors identify as women, a number that is far greater than the roughly 31% of women that make up academia more generally. Wikipedia has long struggled with a fairly homogeneous editing community — composed largely of men — and through our efforts, we are changing the face of who writes Wikipedia and who decides what content should be included on the world’s largest online encyclopedia.

Not simply an assignment, but a way to teach

When considering a Wikipedia assignment for the first time, instructors are often concerned that their students will spend more time learning how to contribute to Wikipedia than the content of the course. To the contrary, learning the ins and outs of Wikipedia can truly complement a course’s broader objectives. According to one instructor, “I started this assignment with the hope of highlighting the difference between academic knowledge (history, in my case) and Wikipedia knowledge. I ended up teaching, more effectively than otherwise, the key processes of history research, instead of teaching students what Wikipedia is. In other words, Wikipedia assignment helped me teach history, more so that a conventional research seminar can do.”

Another instructor remarked, “The Wikipedia project served as a great introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies as it incorporated the material we had discussed in class in a tangible, realizable way. It showed how the theories and practices we covered are not just concepts or academic discourse but are real, applicable, and powerful.”

The Wikipedia assignment transforms students from passive learners to active producers of knowledge. In a time where many feel helpless and powerless to change the world around them, this is no small feat. As one instructor put it, “Wikipedia has become a key pedagogical tool for me in my classes. I still start each semester anxious about how everything will go, but I’m increasingly impressed with what the students accomplish and what they get out of it! It’s a source of community and a source of empowerment and a space of learning.”

We all learned a lot from the challenges of the spring 2020 term, and we know that many of those challenges will persist as we embark on our fall 2020 adventure. What remains constant though is the potential our students and instructors have to truly make a difference through their engagement with Wikipedia.


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