Wikipedia in a first-year writing course

Mary Isbell is an Associate Professor of English at the University of New Haven.

Mary Isbell

I first started teaching with Wikipedia in 2014, after learning that a colleague had taught an entire course in which students read about Wikipedia and composed and edited articles on the site. I was intrigued, having only very recently set aside the “stay away from Wikipedia” lecture that I’d developed as a graduate student teaching first-year writing. I cringe as I admit this, but I defaulted into positioning Wikipedia as a gateway drug to plagiarism; this was my response to students regurgitating summaries of assigned texts from sites like Wikipedia and Sparknotes instead of developing their own ideas. But I was starting to realize that engaging directly with Wikipedia was more impactful than steering students away from it. I had started to pull up plot summaries in Wikipedia articles as an activity during class, asking students what they thought was missing. When I realized that instructors were encouraging students to actually edit the articles, I created a single Wikipedia assignment to use at the end of my first-year writing course. I invited students to use the sources they’d gathered for their research project to improve a Wikipedia article of their choosing. 

Over the years, students have entered my courses with many different perspectives on Wikipedia. Some are surprised that it is possible to edit a site that they so regularly turn to for knowledge. Others are a little put off that I would encourage them to engage with the site, directly contradicting previous teachers who had taught them to avoid it. This variety of student perspectives isn’t a bad thing; the beauty of teaching with Wikipedia is that the site itself is always changing. In what follows, I share some of the ways I’ve learned to harness the power of Wikipedia to teach first-year writing. 

Gaps in Understanding

I have realized that my context for teaching with Wikipedia is different from the scenarios one hears about most often: students collaborating with faculty to fill content gaps in Wikipedia while enrolled in a course they’ve chosen to take. On the Wiki Education blog, we can read articles about students creating or contributing to articles on Islamic Art, Archaeology of Africa and Invertebrate Zoology. I have plans to incorporate Wikipedia into courses like this, but my strategies have been different when teaching first-year students in a required course focused on academic inquiry and writing. Instead of positioning students as partners in correcting a gap in coverage on Wikipedia, I am using Wikipedia first and foremost to help students fill any gaps that might exist in their understanding of how knowledge is created and consumed in our culture. 

It perhaps goes without saying, but Wikipedia’s pedagogical power comes from its centrality in our culture. There is no other writing context I can create for my students that puts their writing in such a highly trafficked space. The WordPress sites I build collaboratively with my students, while public, are not attracting much attention and I am the primary editor of those sites. With Wikipedia, I send students out into the world and I do not control what will happen. I help students prepare and navigate, but when they engage with Wikipedia, their work stands on its own. I repeatedly proclaim the importance of clarity and reliable sources (the “eat your vegetables” of the first-year writing classroom), but the interactions students have with Wikipedians are what truly help them see why and how these things matter. 

To harness the power of Wikipedia for this sort of foundational learning, I give students freedom to explore their interests. The work of improving a Wikipedia article comes at the end of the semester, after students have completed a research project that they have designed based on their own interests. I encourage them to build on that research project, but they’re also free to work on something entirely different. I’ve found that Wikipedia can absolutely meet students where their interests are, from PT Barnum to Machinima, Pisco to the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood

Giving this sort of freedom does leave open the possibility that students will choose to improve articles on their hometown or favorite sport (a bit of a Wikipedia assignment cliché). Even when they pursue the cliché, I’ve found, the experience is more powerful than anything I might have accomplished by pre-selecting a topic. For example, though trainings provided by Wiki Education cover the importance of independent sources and we discuss this in class, one student chose a tourism website as a source to add to an article on her hometown. A longtime Wikipedian reinforced, a bit grumpily, what I had covered in class. It clicked. A student seeking census data to improve the article about his hometown discovered that anyone can create a profitable website by including freely available census data on their site and surrounding it with advertisements. Once he recognized the advertisements and looked into the site it was published on (the first in the list of google results), he decided instead to cite in his revisions. Another student found, as she looked for sources to improve “Volleyball,” that there was a website that had the same content as the article, word for word. I had explained in class that sometimes new editors mistakenly incorporate source material into Wikipedia articles without proper citations and she thought she’d found plagiarism. It was actually someone reusing Wikipedia’s openly licensed content on a Weebly site; this was completely fine because they had given proper attribution to Wikipedia. This provided the perfect opportunity to explore how openly licensed content circulates in our culture. Indeed, the Wiki Education training on plagiarism and its overlap with copyright is one of the best tools I’ve found to help students understand the tricky difference between attribution and citation; I always take time to play the video from the training in class. 

I have found that students who select topics because of their interests often end up correcting a gap in coverage, even when this isn’t their goal at the outset. Their work often involves defending the inclusion of reliable sources that present challenging or disruptive perspectives on the article’s topic. For example, while editing “Call of Duty: WWII” to address controversies surrounding the sparse use of the swastika and the game creators’ choice to create black and female avatars, one student had to defend the reliability of the sources she’d found. Her contributions, much revised and rearranged, remain to this day. One student worked tirelessly to improve “Women in the Military” and actually made some hard-fought headway in improving the “Women in the Armed Forces” section of “United States Armed Forces;” the pushback she received was, again, on the reliability of her sources. She took care in crafting her contributions to the talk page to show other editors of the article that her sources, though less typical, were strong and necessary. I can’t manufacture these experiences. In all of these cases, the learning came through the actual or anticipated interaction with other Wikipedians.

As many educators have realized, Wikipedia assignments invite students into a much more dynamic and engaging experience than submitting a more traditional paper to a teacher. I’ve had students who did the bare minimum on more traditional assignments spend hours talking with other editors on an article’s talk page. I’ve also had students who excel in academic argumentation find it frustrating that original research is not allowed on Wikipedia. Students who struggled to develop their own original claims for writing assignments have reported feeling encouraged that on Wikipedia their ability to describe, in clear prose, what others have already written is in high demand. Some students boldly make many changes to articles (maybe announcing on the talk page first, maybe not) and others approach the talk page as a space to ask for permission. This is all fascinating for me as a writing teacher. The reflections my students have written at the end of the assignment reveals how their contributions to Wikipedia have prompted them to think about their relationship to writing in terms of confidence, community, audience, and their own identities as authors.

An Example Timeline

I love concluding the semester with our Wikipedia assignment, but I’ve learned that scaffolding throughout the semester can make the final weeks that we devote to the assignment much more enjoyable (and much less stressful). This realization has come entirely from my students, whose reflections have revealed the need for more time. Luckily, I’ve realized that Wikipedia is not a departure from the work of the course, but a new lens through which to view it. This means that, more and more, I am using Wikipedia throughout the semester to support other assignments while also preparing students to make edits at the very end of the semester. Over the years, I have combined Wiki Education trainings, remixed Wiki Education trainings, and my own in-class activities to scaffold the final project. I include the plan below, with notes on how things are typically structured.

Assignment 1 (multiple weeks): Responding to a Single Text
No explicit mention of Wikipedia unless a student references an article during class discussion

Wiki Day 1: Getting Acquainted with Wikipedia

Before class, students are asked to read (and annotate with hypothesis, if they choose) a remixed version of the “Wikipedia Policies” training. In class, I guide students through an activity of my own creation (“Digital Presence”), focusing on helping students get acquainted with Wikipedia, Wiki Education, and their own presence on the Internet before creating accounts.

Wiki Day 2: Getting Acquainted with Wikipedians

Before class, students are asked to complete one Wiki Education training (Sandboxes, Talk Pages, and Watch Lists). In class, I guide students through an activity of my own creation (“Contributing to a Talk Page”), which prompts them to explore Wikipedians who have contributed to an article on a topic they find interesting.

Assignment 2 (multiple weeks): Entering an Academic Conversation
We might discuss Wikipedia a bit as we work on this assignment, perhaps referencing existing Wikipedia articles as we work collaboratively to build a library of reliable primary and secondary sources for the assignment. 

Wiki Day 3: Contributing to a Talk Page
Before class, students are asked to complete two trainings (Evaluating Articles and Sources and How to Edit). In class, we revisit “Contributing to a Talk Page” and focus together on an article related to the assignment we just completed. Students work together to brainstorm suggestions for improving the article and they are invited to share their suggestions on the talk page for the article. I encourage students to do what they think is best, which means some choose to bypass the talk page to make a change directly to the article. I don’t discourage this, but I do comment on it and try to get them all thinking about the various styles of editing that are emerging. 

Wiki Day 4: Finding an Article
Before class, students are asked to complete one training (Finding Your Article). In class, I invite students to explore the Article Finder Tool as they make decisions about the research project they will pursue. Wikipedia has always been a useful tool when students are brainstorming research topics, but this has the added benefit of helping them see how particular research projects might put them in a position to improve a Wikipedia article.

Assignment 3 (multiple weeks): Research Project

Typically, some students work on their project with an eye toward revising a Wikipedia article and some students set that assignment aside completely to focus on research questions they developed without reference to Wikipedia. 

Assignment 4 (multiple weeks): Improve Wikipedia

We begin the final project with four Wiki Education trainings that are best completed when students are ready to think of themselves as contributors to Wikipedia (Drafting in the Sandbox, Adding Citations, Moving Work out of the Sandbox, and Plagiarism). Students typically also revisit earlier trainings, and we spend each class period looking at the articles students have selected, planning how they will engage other editors on the talk page, and strategizing about the best ways to handle challenges as they emerge. I make sure that students who decide to contribute to Wikipedia publish their revisions to the actual article (not just their sandbox) by the last day of class at the very latest. This gives them an opportunity to see how other editors respond before the final exam, when their project reflection is due.  

Concluding Thoughts

I think Wikipedia is the perfect way to conclude a first-year writing course. At the end of a long, stressful semester, it is different and fresh. It takes skills students have been honing all semester and puts them to a new use. It also takes original research–something I’ve been teaching and celebrating all semester–off the table. At the start of the semester, many of my students have a difficult time imagining how they could make an original contribution to an academic conversation. As students complete their research projects, I have successfully convinced most of them that it is valuable and even enjoyable to find a creative angle or an unexplored question to explore an issue that they care about. Most are proud of the arguments they have presented. The Wikipedia assignment complicates things in a very useful way. As we enter the final assignment, I remind students that while talk pages are filled with editors’ arguments (about article organization, the validity of sources, the proper word choice), editors do not get to put their own original research into articles. This frustrates students in a useful way. They have to consider how they can improve their chosen article without bringing original research into it. We discuss why original research is not allowed and what would need to happen for their original argument to be mentioned in the article. In the best semesters, the assignment creates a scenario in which, on the final exam day, some students feel strongly that the world needs their original arguments and I’m able to encourage them to seek publication (somewhere reliable!) so those ideas can reach a wider audience. I think that’s a nice place to be at the end of a required first-year writing course.


One thought on “Wikipedia in a first-year writing course

  1. Great article with very helpful and practical ideas about how to structure the assignments in class on a week-by-week basis. I appreciated the discussion of engaging students in Wikipedia as active rather than passive users, who can critique extant articles in light of course materials.

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