On the fence about assigning a Wikipedia project? Reasons to make it a class project

Dr. Sarah Lirley is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri.

Sarah Lirley
Sarah Lirley

Maybe you are like I was in the Spring of 2019—you have not heard of Wikipedia projects or have heard of them, but are unsure of what they are or how you could incorporate them into your class. I am happy to share my experiences as a professor who has assigned semester-long Wikipedia projects twice and who will continue to do so. I am not great with technology and, in fact, joke with my students that I have a “technology curse.” And yet I have successfully helped students complete Wikipedia projects! The guidelines from the staff at Wiki Education are clear enough even for the technologically challenged, like myself.

I first became aware of Wikipedia projects in my first year as an Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College. I worked with the State Historical Society of Missouri to participate in their Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon for Women’s History Month in March of 2019. My class in Women and Gender in American History participated in my first (and my students’ first) Wikipedia project. My students and I knew little about how Wikipedia projects were edited or created. But we were ready for a new adventure.

Maggie Mayhan from the State Historical Society of Missouri gave us a list of possible subjects, all famous Missouri women, whose pages needed updating or creating. My students and I went to work, with guidance from State Historical Society staff. We spent a few class periods editing existing pages and my students worked in pairs to update the information about these famous Missouri women. They were surprised that they had so much to contribute! They learned how to conduct research, write for a public audience, and work in teams. After the project ended, they enthusiastically recommended a similar project for future classes.

I was so excited about the success of my project that I tweeted about it. Someone from Wiki Education saw my tweet and emailed me about possibly creating a project for a future class. I will be honest; I found a new, semester-long project that relied on technology to be daunting. (Seriously, I am convinced that I have a technology curse because I lack tech-savvy!) But I took on the challenge because Wiki Education offered excellent, clear instructions and support and I was eager to move beyond the traditional, often-boring, research paper.

With the help of Helaine Blumenthal and the Wiki Education team and resources, I crafted a semester-long Wikipedia project in the fall of 2019 for my African American History course. It was a writing-intensive course, meaning that students have to complete a significant amount of writing assignments for the course and also revise a draft of a project. The Wikipedia project was perfect because it did both. Students were excited to work on a project that was not a traditional research paper. They found it daunting that their work would be read by a public audience, but they also found it to be more valuable for the same reason.

Wiki Education provides a dashboard with training modules for students and resources for faculty. I could use the dashboard to create a timeline of deadlines (such as creating a Wikipedia account, completing a module about how to begin, all the way through a peer review and final project). Wiki Education also provides modules for professors, including guidelines for suggested additional assignments (such as a reflective essay and original analytical essay, both of which I assign). They even have sample rubrics! Helaine Blumenthal was always just an email away whenever I had a question.

In some of my upper-level courses, Wikipedia projects replaced the traditional research paper. I assign the projects over the space of a full semester. On “Wikipedia Wednesdays” students have assignments due and we often have a discussion about their projects—from proposals, to a peer review of drafts, to presentations over their finished projects. I also check in regularly on their progress, often just asking what new information they have found or if they are having any particular challenges with their projects. Because the project requires the use of only secondary sources and students cannot craft an argument for the Wikipedia page, I assign an original analytical paper, which requires students to do both. Wiki Education offers a template for that assignment and several others as well!

Student feedback indicates that Wikipedia projects are valuable to their learning. Students described the project as “enjoyable,” “fun,” and even “thrilling” in their end-of-project reflective essays. Students’ Wikipedia pages and presentations also showed me that they achieved everything that a traditional research paper is supposed to do and more—they conducted research, analyzed it, wrote effectively about their topics, but also shared their work in a meaningful way with each other and with the public. Wikipedia projects also do a great job of meeting one of my primary goals for the traditional research paper—for students to learn more about a topic that interests them.

In the Fall of 2020, I decided to assign the project again, this time for my History of Immigration in the U.S. class. The project changed because we were in a pandemic and our class was a hybrid of in-person and online meetings. Our class only met online at the end of the semester, so I did not require a presentation, but rather that students share their Wikipedia pages with each other in an online forum and comment on them. The process (and class itself) felt more detached the second time around, in part because we often met on Zoom, but also because I scaled back the required trainings and made more of them optional. I kept “Wikipedia Wednesdays” to check in on their projects regularly. Students reported throughout the semester that were surprised that they enjoyed the project so much! Like me, they initially felt intimidated by the project, but once they got started with it, they came to enjoy it.

My purpose for assigning a semester-long Wikipedia project was to create a more engaging way for students to conduct and write about an original research topic throughout a semester. A Wikipedia project met my goal and sparked an engagement with students’ topics that I witness less often with a traditional research paper. In the fall of 2021, I will assign the project once again in my African American history class and am eager to share previous students’ Wikipedia pages with these incoming students. I plan to devote more class time to explaining the project—more Wikipedia Wednesdays!—but will keep most of the project the same. I am excited to guide a new group of students through a rewarding project, the results of which will be shared with the public.

Image credits: RebelAt at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; SarahLM1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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