Good Wikipedians and honest engineers

Helen Choi is a Senior Lecturer in the Engineering Writing Program at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, and she is interested in exploring issues at the intersection of technology and society.

Helen Choi
Helen Choi

As part of my upper-division composition course for engineering students, I have included the Wikipedia writing assignment as part of a collaborative writing and speaking project since the fall semester of 2019. Over the course of four semesters, 223 students have edited 74 articles in science and engineering by adding more than 191,000 words and 2,630 references; and their articles been viewed more than 5.5 million times.

Thanks to qualitative and quantitative research about the Wikipedia writing assignment, along with my observations and student feedback, I know that students not only enjoy this assignment, but they also feel that it helps build their skills in writing, research, and collaboration. Students have also consistently indicated that this assignment has also helped them to develop their “digital citizenship,” which is defined by Wiki Education as “a desire to contribute to and ensure the accuracy and accessibility of information.” In fact, 95% of respondents to my end-of-semester surveys about this assignment over four semesters agree (20%) or strongly agree (75%) on this.

In the past, I considered this outcome on digital citizenship as positive but ancillary to the communication goals of the course, but this semester, I’ve come to view this outcome as paramount for my engineering students, because this assignment is a real-life exercise in ethical practice for engineers.

In my class, we discuss professional engineering ethics, but I have always struggled to find ways to teach this unit with more immediacy and relevancy, as most of our discussions often take on proscriptive and aspirational stances that seem far removed from the everyday lives of students. The Wikipedia assignment, however, with its authentic and vast audience on an accessible and starkly transparent platform, provides a ready space in which students can apply some of the principles we discuss in our engineering ethics unit such as prioritizing public welfare, acting with honesty, and presenting information accurately.

When I look back at my students’ work on Wikipedia, I can see not just their writing but also their efforts at living some of these ethical principles in engineering. Their ethical practice is clearly documented on Wikipedia’s talk pages, histories, and sandboxes, which evidence that they have drafted, written and researched with diligence and integrity and that they have shared their words bravely with millions through not just peer review but public review. Their errors in tone and missteps in judgement are also neatly preserved – as are their efforts to evaluate criticism and reversions assuming the good faith of others and to engage with other Wikipedia editors civilly and productively in the pursuit of presenting accurate information to the public.

I only woke up to this rather obvious connection as I sifted through some of my students Wikipedia presentations for final grading this semester. As part of their group presentation, they were to address course themes that connected our assignments, and a student noted that “being a good Wikipedian is like being a honest engineer because both produce work that people rely on everyday.”  That moment for me was the equivalent of a concrete light bulb landing on my head and jolting my Zoom-addled neurons to connect. But I give myself partial credit for at least asking the question that sparked an answer so clear that even I could not ignore it. At least, I will be ready for next semester, when we’ll explore the customs and norms of Wikipedia editing, compare them with professional engineering codes of ethics, and (explicitly this time — with intention!) LIVE these overlapping ethical principles as we edit Wikipedia.

Image credits: Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; 1namesake1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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