Ask 10 people what they think about Wikipedia, and you’re likely to get 11 opinions. Few websites evoke the same type of strong reactions as does Wikipedia, and this is especially true within academia. From praise to disparagement and from open and full embracement to grudging acceptance to outright rejection, Wikipedia is a constant source of debate within the walls of academe.
Wikipedia’s position within academia has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. While some may continue to grumble about its inaccuracies or its volunteer based model, few would dispute that it is a permanent fixture in today’s higher education landscape. No where is this more apparent than in our Wikipedia Student Program where instructors assign their students to contribute to Wikipedia as an assignment in the course. While a self-selected group of individuals, our instructors have a lot to say about Wikipedia, and following is a glimpse of their varied view points.
A place to start
Whether you’re aware of it or not, Wikipedia is often the first place people go when seeking knowledge about a topic. It’s regularly the first link to show up in a Google search or in the Google knowledge panel. This reality is not lost on our instructors. As one remarked, “Wikipedia is a wealth of information and the go to place for people to start finding information. Wikipedia is a central hub and starting place when researching a topic. It provides students (or anyone for that matter) a brief introduction to a topic and allows them to rapidly evaluate how well-known a particular topic is.” Another remarked, “One of the best first stops for information out there.”
For most of the population, highly specialized knowledge is often behind paywalls. With access to university libraries, this is not the case for instructors and students, and many of our instructors feel it is their responsibility to make restricted information available to the greater public. As one of our instructors noted, “This is a resource that we can use as a springboard to find out about something. I have friends who teach in institutions in settings that lack library resources, independent researcher friends who are stymied by educational content paywalls.” “While college students and professors,” wrote another instructor, “have access to databases like JSTOR, there are restrictions like paywalls that prevent them from being easily accessible. As a frequent landing page for initial research/general exploration, Wikipedia reaches far more readers than, say, an academic article.”
Few would argue that Wikipedia should be one’s first and last stop on a serious attempt to fully explore a topic. As the first stop though, it’s critical that readers know how to navigate the cite and consume the information presented there. In the words of one of our instructors, “It is a controversial platform in higher education as so many educators discourage students from using it, but it serves as the first resource that many of them go to for information. I think that knowing more about the platform helps us as educators evaluate its importance and how we can help students use it better as a resource that might ground them in general knowledge and provide links to more reputable (and citable) research material that they can use in their own work.”
Not surprisingly, Wikipedia is closely bound up with personal pedagogy for many of our instructors. In an ever-changing technological landscape, instructors are regularly seeking to provide their students with meaningful educational experiences. “Entering the wikiverse,”remarked one instructor, “was a very enlightening and positive experience. I found it to be a valuable and interesting way to teach. I like that I was able to empower students to make changes.” Another remarked, “It’s fun, engaging, and it’s great to give students a different kind of assignment outside of an essay where they can see its worldwide impact.”
Many of our instructors speak about the “authenticity” of the Wikipedia assignment. Students are well aware that the traditional research paper is tossed at the end of the term. To be sure, there is great value in the traditional term paper, but its scope is limited to a small audience of one. As one instructor wrote, “Wikipedia has provided me with my most successful experience having students write for authentic audiences.” Another commented, “Wikipedia is quite simply the most impactful and effective thing I do as a teacher. The students learn valuable computational, communication, and research skills while at the same time providing an important service and making a positive impact.”
Free, democratic, and open
When asked about what Wikipedia means to them, our instructors used the words free, democratic, and open over and over again. Wikipedia’s lofty mission of making information widely available to the world is a main motivation for a large portion of our instructors. They see the Wikipedia assignment as a chance to make a difference and to help their students have some impact in the world. As one instructor wrote, “Wikipedia is something that is great and can be even better. It gives something to us and we can also participate in doing it. For me it means making small contributions and improvements, and a way to encourage students to engage with knowledge in different ways.” Another remarked, “I LOVE WIKIPEDIA!!! I love collaborative writing, collaborative creation, and improving access to information and knowledge for people around the world.”
For others, Wikipedia is about closing inequities in access to reliable information. “It means positively impacting society,” noted one instructor, “and bridging the gap between physicians and patients. Helping to decrease the stronghold of misinformation on the internet.” Another expressed, “Wikipedia is a free and open collaborative means for people from all walks of life, ages, genders, cultures to contribute to the naming of their world, and, in general, to compare stories about the way things have come to be and what changes we can expect, etc.”
For many of our instructors, Wikipedia’s value lies in its mission and in its constant striving toward something better. One instructor wrote, “A wonderful global project with the noblest of aims.” Another noted, “An invaluable source of information and a community of editors working for the greater good.”
Wikipedia is, by no means, not without its frustrations, but as one instructor put it best, “as a human being, I find it both amazing and reassuring that Wikipedia can provide such voluminous and high quality information while existing as an open resource to which anybody can contribute. In these times in which society is so filled with mistrust and misinformation (social media in particular), Wikipedia’s continuing success is a testament to our better nature, demonstrating that the overwhelming majority of us value trustworthiness.”