5 themes that emerge from a Wikipedia assignment

Victoria Austen, PhD, is a lecturer in the Classics department at the University of Winnipeg. She is also the communications officer for the Women’s Network of the Classical Association of Canada and has been a Wikipedia editor since 2019. You can find her on Twitter at @Vicky_Austen.

Victoria Austen
Victoria Austen

I first became involved in editing Wikipedia through the Women’s Classical Committee’s #WCCWiki project. Founded in 2017 by Emma Bridges, Claire Millington, and Victoria Leonard, this entirely volunteer-led and driven project seeks to rectify the gender imbalance of classicist biographies on Wikipedia by creating new articles or editing and improving older content. As a contributor to this project, I not only became equipped with the skills to edit Wikipedia myself, but I also grew increasingly aware of how a targeted approach to editing can create swift and lasting change on the platform, providing an opportunity to expand public knowledge on a specific topic.

Armed with the skills from my own editing experiences, and encouragement from my Women’s Network colleague Chelsea Gardner (who has used Wiki Education several times in the past), I decided to incorporate a Wiki Education assignment into my Roman Britain class for the Winter 2021 semester. I chose this particular class for a two main reasons: 1) it was a small upper-level class, which seemed the most manageable option for my first experience with the platform; and 2) Roman Britain is a topic that sparks plenty of public interest, and yet many of the Wikipedia pages within this category were underdeveloped and in need of editing. I assigned a 12-week Wiki Education programme, replacing the traditional ‘final research paper’, and this provided my students with the opportunity to create impactful and public-facing research and build their digital literacy skills.

For the final part of their project, I asked my students to write a short personal essay, reflecting on their experiences of the project. Across all of these reflections, five key themes emerged that really demonstrated to me the benefits and wide-ranging impact of the Wiki Education programme:

1. The first theme I encountered was simply the overwhelming positivity of the reflections. Many students commented on how much they loved the uniqueness of the project, and how it had been ‘honestly refreshing’ and ‘the most interesting assignment that [they] have been given in a long time’.

2. Much of this positivity appeared to be linked to the public-facing nature of the project. Although many students admitted they had first felt intimidated by the thought of their work being ‘out there’ on the internet, they all commented on the huge sense of achievement they felt seeing their articles published on Wikipedia at the end of semester and how contributing to global knowledge was incredibly fulfilling.

3. This notion of public-facing scholarship also linked up with the third predominant theme of the essays — reflection on the value of knowledge dissemination and open-access resources. As one student noted, “This project has had a profound impact on the way in which I perceive how information is composed and distributed, as I have come to realize the privilege of having access to vast amounts of resources that are usually limited to the general public.”
As an educator, I also found it particularly heart-warming to read how meaningful my students found the process of contributing to an open-access resource like Wikipedia: “I had a realization that knowledge is not only meant to dwell in an academic setting, but it should exist everywhere.”

4. The majority of my students also commented on how helpful they found the collaborative aspects of the project. A significant part of the class collaboration was achieved through a peer-review exercise, with each student reviewing the first-drafts of one of their peer’s articles; but students also interacted with other Wikipedia editors outside of the class:
“The Talk pages really blew my mind. Everyone is able to communicate with one another and help each other to make sure the content being published is the best quality it can be.”
Completing the project during the Covid-19 pandemic also seemed to strike a particular chord with many: “One of my favourite aspects of the assignment was its ability to bring together a class outside of the classroom. I ultimately felt as if I were a part of a big Wikipedia community.”

5. Finally, the theme that stood out to me the most was the students’ reflections on their own research and writing skills. As one student noted: “Completing this assignment strengthened my understanding of the ways to present existing data without including my own, potentially biased, interpretation… I was also able to learn to write in a less aggressive manner and cure my disease of close paraphrasing, and begin to relay arguments and discussion in my own words.”
Similarly, another student reflected on the three most important skills they had gained from completing the project – ‘bettering research and writing skills’, ‘learning to navigate a digital platform’, and ‘gaining confidence to share my work’.

In terms of overall impact on Wikipedia, the stats from my Wiki Education dashboard really speak for themselves. My small but mighty group of Winnipeg Wikipedians contributed 13,600 new words to the site, across 17 different pages; they added 286 references over the course of their 945 edits; and they uploaded 20 new images to Wikimedia Commons, 13 of which were used directly on pages. Despite the class only finishing one month ago, the articles in questions have already had over 400,000 views.

You can find a further summary of the edits and additions made by the class here.

To end my own reflection, then, I would like to share a final quote from one of my students, who I think summarizes the inherent value of Wiki Education perfectly:

“What I learned during this assignment will allow me to more readily be an active member of the global community of content contributors and curators, rather than just passively absorbing information.”

Image credits: KrazyTea, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Drausten, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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