Reflecting on the Wikipedia Student Program’s Fall 2021 term

With the Spring 2022 term underway, we’ve finally had the chance to take a deep breath and reflect on Fall 2021. At this point, it seems like an overused refrain, but we know that the pandemic has continued to pose unique challenges to higher education. It hasn’t been easy for students and faculty alike, and we just want to acknowledge these hardships and thank our program participants for their commitment and hard work in a difficult time.

The work our students did would have been impressive at any time, let alone during an unrelenting pandemic. Nearly 6,000 students from roughly 330 courses:

  • added 4.72 million words to Wikipedia.
  • cited almost 50,000 references.
  • edited more than 6,000 articles.
  • created 500 entirely new entries.

From improving articles on Molecular biotechnology to Ancient Greece, our students had a major impact on Wikipedia, but in doing so, Wikipedia also had a major impact on them.

Life skills and skills for life

We often think about the Wikipedia assignment in loftier terms. Students, with their unparalleled access to information behind paywalls for most of the population, make the world a better place by making knowledge freely available to the public. As one instructor wrote, “Wikipedia enables me and my students to indulge in our love of ideas while always challenging us to learn new things and to present scholarship to the world.” We sometimes, however, gloss over the very real and practical skills students develop while learning to contribute to Wikipedia. Indeed, the broader goals of the Wikipedia assignment go hand-in-hand with its more pragmatic outcomes.

Over 90% of instructors regularly report that their students gain critical digital literacy skills from the Wikipedia assignment. As one instructor noted, the project is a “Perfect assignment for teaching how to critically evaluate online information.” Another remarked, “Students gained much more awareness of how to verify information and work through policies.” Sourcing is at the heart of the Wikipedia assignment. Students learn how to evaluate the quality of a source and to quickly judge whether a source is reliable or not. Armed with their newly honed digital literacy skills, students are far more prepared to take on the barrage of misinformation thrown at them daily.

Digital literacy is the first step though toward the more amorphous goal of digital citizenship. 98% of instructors report that the project engenders a sense of digital citizenship in their students. As one instructor wrote, “The students came out feeling that they had contributed substantively to scholarship about the region we are studying, and they felt indeed a sense of digital citizenship.” In other words, students not only develop the ability to discern reliable information, but they see themselves as knowledge producers with a responsibility toward a greater community to ensure information they share is accurate and accessible.

Alongside media literacy, instructors report that the Wikipedia assignment also helps students to develop writing and research skills and to better master the course content. Writing for a public audience raises the stakes and often helps to make the material they’re studying take on new relevance and meaning. As one instructor described, “The Wikipedia assignment offers external reinforcement of many of the learning outcomes in the class, so students can see the real-world utility of research skills.” “Wikipedia has provided [wrote another instructor] an opportunity for students to dig into the scientific literature while also making their research widely available. A term paper is great but only the instructor sees the final product. Having student work widely available is incredibly useful for both the students and the scientific community.”

Many instructors often comment that the real pedagogical value of the Wikipedia assignment lies in the processes students undertake while learning how to contribute to the world’s largest online encyclopedia. Put simply, “Students work for themselves and learn how to learn.”

Who’s teaching who?

Nearly all of the instructors we support have no prior experience editing Wikipedia. This means that instructors are often learning along side their students as they embark on their Wikipedia adventures. “Because this was my first time teaching a Wikipedia assignment,” noted one instructor, “and because I was upfront with my students that I was learning alongside them, they appreciated seeing me as a learner as well as a teacher.”

In contributing to a public-facing site, students develop a sense of authority that comes from being able to share expertise. As one instructor remarked, the project “works as a way to transform advanced undergrads from a student mindset to an authority in the field mindset.” Often for the first time, students understand the types of issues faculty face in their own research. “I think it helped them to realize,” offered one instructor, “that the professor grapples with the same kinds of research and writing challenges that they face and that such challenges are a natural and expected part of scholarship.”

Pedagogically speaking, the project offers a rich landscape of opportunities. One instructor wrote that, “I gained a great knowledge of my students’ deficiencies in research from this project. I had made assumptions about their prior knowledge and skills that were inaccurate, and this assignment helped me diagnose the gaps in their skills and knowledge. It was not always pretty to see what I discovered, but it will be helpful to me in the future.” Another noted, “It is the main learning tool I use. The work from the textbook is less creative. The Wikipedia assignment solidifies the learning.” And yet another declared that “Wikipedia helped me improve my confidence and teaching skills!”

More simply, the Wikipedia assignment often engenders a sense of excitement and energy among students and faculty alike that leads to greater engagement. As one faculty member wrote, “It was invigorating as an instructor to talk about the democratization of knowledge with my students, and it was empowering for them to put their research and writing skills into action.” Another commented, “This assignment significantly enhances teaching and learning in the course overall by creating excitement in the students, a greater sense of belonging and viewing themselves as scientists with something to offer, a greater appreciation of the purpose of all of the course material, and a much deeper relationship between student and instructor.”

Taking pride in a job well-done

In the account of one instructor, “A senior indicated that it was the most difficult research project they ever had to do, but also the most satisfying.” This is a common refrain among faculty and students alike. The Wikipedia assignment isn’t easy. There’s a lot to learn before students are able to make their contributions, but the pride and satisfaction students feel at the end of the project is without parallel.

Students understand that the work they put on Wikipedia has real world implications, and as a result, feel more accountable for the information they put out into the world. As one instructor wrote, “Students were very engaged. In final presentations at the end of the semester, many said, “I was surprised how invested I became in this assignment.” Another explained, “Students for the most part came to see their work as meaningful beyond the classroom. They understood the concept of ‘making knowledge’ as something that actually happens more so than just an ideal.”

The pride and satisfaction students experience from seeing their work live on Wikipedia is infectious! As one instructor shared, the value of this project lies in “Witnessing students stepping up to accomplish a difficult task and sharing in their joy and celebration!” Another declared, “Don’t be afraid! I was nervous and I was awe struck by how amazing my students’ contributions were.”

Thank you again to all of the instructors and students who made Fall 2021 an outstanding term for us at Wiki Education and for helping to make the world a better place during challenging times!

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