This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Education Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.
In 2010, I joined a team of free knowledge enthusiasts to launch a program that is today known as Wiki Education’s Student Program. Our goal was simple: enable higher education students to add content to the English Wikipedia as a class assignment. For students, it’s an opportunity to gain key 21st century skills and have their academic work be meaningful outside the classroom; for Wikipedia, it was an opportunity to gain more content — and, if we could scale the program up, help solve Wikipedia’s new editor crisis.
Ten years later, I’m proud that we’re well on our way to success: Our students have added more content to the English Wikipedia than the last print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica had — and they represent 19% of all new active editors joining the English Wikipedia.
Both are impressive markers of success. But I am particularly proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to scale Wiki Education’s Student Program to the point where we bring 19% of all the new active editors to English Wikipedia because of what it means for the future of Wikipedia — and the equity of open knowledge.
Online communities require new members
Our program started in 2010, as a response to the Wikimedia movement’s then-new strategic plan. In particular, we wanted to both increase participation and improve quality. Participation was particularly important because the number of active editors of English Wikipedia had skyrocketed in 2005–06, but had started decreasing in 2007 — and the retention of new editors was simultaneously tanking. This retention vs active editors chart’s trend lines boded poorly for Wikipedia’s future.
Bringing new editors in is critical to the future of the encyclopedia because of the natural churn in online communities. Over time, the people who serve as Wikipedia’s community of editors have typical life changes. Jobs change, family situations change, and life priorities change — and in that, it’s natural for some people to have less time for volunteer roles or hobbies like editing Wikipedia. Online communities need new participants joining at the same rate as people are naturally leaving the community in order to continue thriving.
A thriving community is critical for the existence of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the force it is today because it’s the place people go for access to information. An average of 859 million devices access the English Wikipedia each month. But if content weren’t up to date, if people couldn’t find what they were looking for when they looked something up on Wikipedia, Wikipedia would cease to be a top-10 website in terms of page views. The Wikipedia we know and rely on today wouldn’t exist without the corps of volunteer content contributors who make up the active editor base.
Another area in which new editors are important is content diversity, or as we in the Wikimedia movement call it, “knowledge equity”. English Wikipedia’s editing community is 86% male, and this gender gap results in content gaps as well, where we see extremely detailed coverage of military history and video gaming topics and gaps in coverage of the arts and many other academic subject areas. Bringing in new contributors from backgrounds that are more diverse than the existing editing population is critical to adding content perspectives missing from Wikipedia.
In our movement, “knowledge equity” also encompasses challenges of coverage in other language Wikipedias. While I firmly believe it’s important to improve the content available in the 300+ language Wikipedias, it’s also critically important to improve English Wikipedia’s equity gaps as well. Over the last year, English Wikipedia got 126 billion page views — and the combined total page views of all language Wikimedia projects is 285 billion, meaning English Wikipedia gets 44% of all the page views that go to Wikimedia projects.
I believe in Wikimedia’s vision to collect the sum of all knowledge for all humans in their own language. But we are far from achieving this vision. It’s critical to invest in both growing Wikipedia coverage in other languages and also ensuring that the Wikipedia read by 44% of our user base addresses its own systemic bias issues. Addressing content gaps on English Wikipedia is even more important when you consider a significant portion of the content development in emerging communities is coming from translation from English and other major language Wikipedias. Translating English Wikipedia’s biases into emerging language Wikipedias just exacerbates our content equity problems.
Put simply, English Wikipedia needs new active editors — and those from diverse communities — to achieve knowledge equity in the Wikimedia movement.
Wiki Education’s role
When we started the program in 2010, the collaboration between Wikipedia and academia was already happening. Faculty who were Wikipedians were already assigning students to edit — and many of the existing Wikipedia editors were students themselves. We weren’t crazy to think we could engage students to edit Wikipedia at scale — we just needed the time to build a program that worked.
Two years ago, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Audiences team released a slide deck that included the highlight: “In January, global new editor retention hit its highest level since 2007”, with the sub-bullet: “Apparent cause is the trend toward higher and higher January and September spikes on the English Wikipedia”. This point immediately struck me: As our Student Program is tied to the academic calendar, we bring more and more new editors at the beginning of each term in the U.S. and Canadian calendars, so every January and September. We reached out to the Audiences team, provided additional information on our program participants, and in early 2019, their next slide deck included the data that 19% of all English Wikipedia’s new active editors come from Wiki Education. One year later, we are holding steady: according to a Wikimedia Foundation analysis, Wiki Education remains responsible for 19% of all English Wikipedia’s new active editors.
What does it mean that we’re bringing in 19% of all of English Wikipedia’s new active editors? Consider that 59% of the 16,000 students we bring to the English Wikipedia every year identify as women (plus an additional 2% who identify as non-binary or other), and 42% identify as non-white, meaning we’re significantly increasing diversity in English Wikipedia’s editor population. We’re also specifically reaching out to higher education faculty in underrepresented topic areas, such as race, gender, and sexuality. We’re improving Wikipedia’s knowledge equity — and at such a scale that our program can be seen in the global English Wikipedia contributor numbers. Our program participants represent 3% of all active editors on the English Wikipedia.
This is an incredible accomplishment. I couldn’t be prouder of the hard work of all the people who have worked on the program over the last decade — the 1,800+ faculty, the 80,000 students, the hundreds of Wikipedians who have helped support our students in their volunteer roles, the funders who have believed in our work enough to support us financially, and the small but mighty staff of our program who’ve build structures and processes to grow the program to this milestone. Thank you for all your efforts!