Term after term, the Wikipedia Student Program produces remarkable results. Thousands of students from hundreds of institutions in the U.S. and Canada contribute millions of words to Wikipedia, and the response from the faculty and students we support is overwhelmingly positive. It would be easy to take this continued success for granted, but reflection and review are cornerstones of our programs. Each term brings new learnings and insights, and Spring 2022 was no exception.
Numbers alone do not make a story, but they are nevertheless impressive! In Spring 2022, roughly 6,000 students from 340 courses:
- Added 4.85 million words to Wikipedia.
- Added almost 50,000 references.
- Contributed to 5,720 articles.
- Created 395 new entries.
Enhancing Knowledge Equity
Knowledge equity has long been one of Wiki Education’s driving forces. It’s a term with many definitions, and one with which Wikipedia has often struggled. Equity is as much about content as it is about access, and both are incredibly important to us. In the past several years, we’ve made knowledge equity a central part of the Wikipedia assignment. We’ve encouraged students to consider whether an article contains a notable equity gap (i.e. relating to an underrepresented or marginalized population, region, or topic) as well as asking students to evaluate whether the sources they’re using are from a truly representative population. While these efforts are difficult to assess, we think they’re making a difference.
- About 75% of instructors report that the Wikipedia assignment helps their students to become more socially and culturally aware of issues related to bias and equity.
- About 60% of instructors made equity a major focus of their course and encouraged their students to tackle an equity gap when choosing articles.
Content and access go hand in hand, and several of our instructors and students from Spring 2022 remarked on how the Wikipedia assignment heightened their awareness of their relatively privileged position vis-à-vis knowledge. One instructor wrote, “I think I actually learned as much about Wikipedia as my students. I had not thought about the impact of a freely available encyclopedia that does not require access to a University library or money to get behind paywalls. My students were really excited about the idea that they were making knowledge available to more people and the idea that they were writing something that lots of people would read.”
In the words of a student enrolled in a course on Latin American History, “Doing the Wikipedia assignment also is a humbling experience that truly allowed me to value my education even further. I have honestly taken for granted the resources that I have had access to as a college student. It was fulfilling to know that thanks to my work I have allowed others to learn free of cost from resources that they would not have access to otherwise.”
In creating and sharing knowledge, students take on the role of expert and educator. They become peers rather than students, and many faculty note that this new level of relatability brings excitement and energy to their classes. “The students [wrote one instructor] felt more mature as they were contributing to something which will be used by other students around the world. It was nice to be a part of that movement to the next level- to view them more as future peers.” Another instructor remarked, “Students were excited about the project and excited about their own shift in attitude toward Wikipedia. By choosing article topics (New Deal arts and culture projects) that relate to my own research, they saw my own passion and caught a glimpse at my research project.”
With Knowledge Comes Empowerment
In contributing to Wikipedia, students not only become more attuned to their relationship to knowledge, but they realize that they too have a voice and a stake in today’s information landscape. While the public-facing nature of the Wikipedia assignment can often be daunting, it ultimately contributes to the immense sense of pride students feel about their work. As one student wrote, “I really enjoyed working on my project and plan to contribute further to Wikipedia in my free time. After completing the project, I felt proud of myself knowing my work will be seen by others besides my professor. It is rewarding to know that my contribution to Wikipedia will benefit others rather than just my grade in the class.” As described by one of our instructors, “Most students responded with pride to the articles they created and were particularly enamored with the fact that their work would be viewed and used as a resource by the public, versus a traditional research paper which often just gets written and then never looked at again.” Yet another instructor remarked, “the assignment increased my students self-worth in realizing that they can contribute to society’s knowledge at large.”
Pride and satisfaction aren’t the only outcomes from sharing information. In crafting public-facing knowledge, students often express that they better master the content at hand. As one student wrote, “I believe I learned about as much as I would have from doing a paper instead of a Wikipedia article, but I think I learned it very differently than I would have: I’ve honestly found that I can still remember, very clearly, the information I put on my article because I had to write everything in my own words—I can’t say I’ve ever remembered this much information from a typical term paper before, so in that way I think this project was extremely beneficial to the way I learned more about Latin America.” Another student remarked, “Wikipedia is extremely touchy about sourcing: you can’t quote or paraphrase, and of course outright plagiarism is not allowed. But being forced to put everything I learned in my own words was a new experience for me, since I have been so used, in my other classes, to being allowed to quote amply so long as I was able to analyze the information in my own words after. Now, after having to source this way in Wikipedia, I’ve found that I have steered clear of sources that I didn’t understand enough to put in my own words; I have become less reliant on making other authors’ quotes do my writing for me and I have found it easier to make sure my quotes are supporting my own words on a topic.”
It can be difficult to disentangle the different threads of the Wikipedia assignment, but simply put: Constructing and disseminating knowledge helps students to gain confidence in their own abilities as well as develop a range of academic, professional, and even personal skills.
A New Appreciation for Wikipedia
The vast majority of students we support are familiar with Wikipedia, but as passive consumers of information. Many of them come to the Wikipedia assignment with ingrained messaging that Wikipedia is not a reliable resource and should be avoided. In learning to contribute to Wikipedia, students not only learn how to responsibly use Wikipedia, but they gain a critical understanding of how the site works to ensure accuracy.
“The assignment [wrote one instructor] is generally mind-blowing for my students. Wikipedia is such a huge factor in student’s “everyday,” but almost all the messages they have received about it are so overwhelmingly negative, that the opportunity to critically explore the platform tends to radically change their perspective on information and engagement with education.” Another noted, “Without fail, every single student said they had always been told not to use Wikipedia but after this project they see how rigorous the editing process is and they wish they’d known it sooner.”
Wikipedia is undeniably a central piece of our information landscape, and students come away from this project with the tools and know-how to use it expertly.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the challenges of the ongoing pandemic continue to plague higher education. We’re especially grateful to our instructors and students for their incredible commitment during these exceptional times. We continue to hope that this project provides a modicum of stability in what is otherwise a time of uncertainty. As always, our instructors capture the essence of this initiative far better than we can. “I love Wikipedia. As a sociologist of knowledge, Wikipedia is totally implausible. No one expected Wikipedia to work the way it does, but it does. I consider it a privilege to be able to contribute and get students literate at engaging and contributing to it, and I hope that its a bug that infects!” And likewise, we consider it a privilege to work with so many incredible faculty and students.