Ten years of Wikipedia Education Program – a look back

This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Education Program. Started as an experimental pilot project by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2010, it quickly grew into a global program run by different organizations across more than 80 countries. Over the past decade, Wiki Education – an independent spin-off of the Wikimedia Foundation – has been supporting instructors at more than 500 universities in the United States and Canada. Today’s post by our Executive Director Frank Schulenburg, who also founded the Education Program back in 2010, will be the first in a series of blog posts that tell the story of the program in the United States and in Canada, while celebrating some of its achievements.

The idea

When the Wikimedia Foundation hired me as “Head of Public Outreach” in July 2008, Wikipedia had already gained some steam. During the first seven years of its existence, the online encyclopedia “that everybody can edit” had attracted an extremely dedicated group of volunteers who spent an incredible amount of their free time writing articles, uploading images, and curating content. As a result, Wikipedia’s readership had multiplied year over year and the site was clearly on its way to become a mainstream staple of the internet. Given that an increasing number of people around the globe relied on Wikipedia’s content to be accurate and trustworthy, attracting new contributors became a goal of paramount importance. But how can you “broaden participation” and “encourage qualified authors to contribute”, as my job description then mandated? Would you run an ad campaign asking people to become “encyclopedists”? How could you even incentivize participation if a reputation gain – as one of the enticements knowledgeable people are traditionally after – wasn’t attainable due to the fact that Wikipedia wouldn’t publicly list the authors’ names the same way as other encyclopedias did?

The answer to these questions became more obvious when I noticed an emerging trend in higher education: an increasing number of university instructors had started using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. Instead of writing a traditional term paper, students wrote Wikipedia articles. That way, they engaged in a “real-world assignment”, gained critical thinking skills, learned how to collaborate online, and how to convey facts to a non-expert audience. From an instructors perspective, students were far more motivated and had a much deeper learning experience. All seemed to line up.

The first years

So, in early 2010, we decided to boost the existing trend of “Using Wikipedia as a teaching tool” driven by the grassroots efforts of highly innovative instructors in U.S. higher education. In order to learn from these pioneers’ experiences, we invited some of them to Wikimedia’s office in downtown San Francisco and spent two days on listening to what they had to say. Then, after some preliminary research – including a tour to select colleges in the United States – we hired a small team and tasked them with a feasibility study that lasted 18 months. Our main goal was twofold: in order to support a larger number of instructors, we first needed to build a broad range of support mechanisms so that “Teaching with Wikipedia” would be easy to replicate. Secondly, we had to create awareness of the program and its benefits, so that instructors at a wide range of institutions of higher education would be eager to join the program.

Wikimedia pilot project team and advisory board in August 2010.
Wikimedia pilot project team and advisory board in August 2010.

Over the course of 18 months, a small project team of five worked on what became to be one of the most successful outreach projects ever undertaken by the Wikimedia Foundation. The project team supported professors at 24 universities who taught 47 classes. More than 800 students contributed the equivalent of 5,800 printed pages of high-quality content to Wikipedia. The students had a much deeper learning experience and they gained critical 21st-century skills. Most importantly, the pilot project successfully demonstrated that the underlying model worked. That’s when we decided to move some of the initial members of the team to permanent positions in order to scale our efforts up.

Between 2011 and 2014, the program grew moderately in numbers of participants. It was clear there was interest among academia to scale the program up beyond the 75-ish courses that were teaching with Wikipedia each term. But the Wikimedia Foundation’s strategy suggested it wasn’t the right home for a U.S.-based program, as they were focusing on global efforts. Wikimedia supported a year-long volunteer effort to create a spinoff organization: Wiki Education, the missing link between the world of academia and Wikipedia.

Scaling up

At Wiki Education, we focused our attention on scaling the program. We made several significant changes in the 2014–16 time frame that have brought us to where we are today. First, we created an online course management platform. Next, we started establishing formal partnerships with academic associations. These two elements were absolutely critical for our ability to scale.

Chart showing growth in the number of classes participating in the program.
Chart showing growth in the number of classes participating in the program.

The partnerships with academic associations resulted in significant growth in the number of people teaching with Wikipedia, as these institutions helped recruit new instructors through their vast networks of members. At the same time, this new way of building partnerships allowed us to target Wikipedia’s content in specific fields.

In order to provide a rapidly growing number of instructors and students with appropriate support, we shifted from in-person help (through email, phone, and Wikipedia Ambassadors) to our online course management platform. The new system has since been helping instructors with planning their assignments as well as with monitoring and assessing their students’ work. For both instructors and students, the system offers a variety of different online trainings. On our end, the system enables us to have a clear understanding of how our program is performing and where we need to intervene.

The learnings we made over the course of the first two years of Wiki Education enabled us to start the “Wikipedia Year of Science” in 2016, a large-scale campaign involving U.S. and Canadian education institutions in increasing Wikipedia science content quality while improving students’ science communication skills. As a result, we provided more than 300 million Wikipedia readers around the globe with free access to high-quality science information in 2016 alone.

In the Fall of 2016, we partnered with Zach McDowell who surveyed 1,627 students and 97 instructors about the benefits of a Wikipedia writing assignment. The resulting study found that Wikipedia-based assignments enhance students’ digital literacy and critical research skills, foster their ability to write for a public audience, promote collaboration, and motivate them more than traditional assignments. The results of this study enabled us to make an even better point about the benefits of our programmatic work when talking to potential partners and to individual instructors.

In April 2018 we reached a significant milestone: after eight years of Teaching with Wikipedia, students enrolled in our program had added more than 44 million words to Wikipedia, eclipsing the amount of information available in the last print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.

10 years later

As we enter the fall 2020 term, it’s been ten years since our program started, and I couldn’t be prouder of where we are today. We have successfully improved the efficiency of our work to the point where we can run a high-impact program with a relatively small team. Each term anew, participants in our Student Program improve Wikipedia’s content to the benefit of millions of readers around the world. Generations of students have gained critical skills while engaging in real-world assignments. Higher education has embraced the concept of “Teaching with Wikipedia” at a scale that we could not have imagined ten years ago.

The impact we’ve had along the way has been astounding. Keep an eye on our blog over the next few weeks as we feature different ways of looking at the changes the Student Program has brought.

We would be remiss without acknowledging the hard work from former colleagues involved in various aspects of this program over the years, including: At Wikimedia, Rod Dunican, Pete Forsyth, Mishelle Gonzales, Annie Lin, and Ashlen Roth; at Wiki Education, TJ Bliss, Paul Carroll, Sara Crouse, Rob Fernandez, Tanya Garcia, Bill Gong, Ozge Gundogdu, Victoria Hinshaw, Adam Hyland, Renee LeVesque, Zach McDowell, Ryan McGrady, Tom Porter, Wes Reid, Eryk Salvaggio, Kevin Shiroo, Shalor Toncray, Cassidy Villeneuve, Samantha Weald, and Elysia Webb. And, of course, all the volunteers, instructors, students, librarians, and others who have supported the program!


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