Teaching with Wikipedia

Simson Garfinkel conducted Wikipedia assignments in his Ethics and Data Science course at George Washington University between 2019 and 2022. He previously worked as a data scientist for the Department of Homeland Security and US Census Bureau. He is also a journalist who covers information technology, computer security, and privacy.

Simson Garfinkel (public domain)

Teaching with Wikipedia was a transformative experience for both my students and me. I strongly recommend that faculty members consider incorporating Wiki Education into their curricula—especially faculty working in STEM fields.

For three years, I used the Wiki Education platform as one of the core elements for a course I taught as a part-time faculty member at George Washington University. Since then, I’ve discovered that few faculty members know about this incredible resource. We need to get the word out!

In my experience, Wiki Education helps students become stronger writers and better academics. It helps them to better understand the process of consuming and producing knowledge for online communities. And students get to see the immediate results of their work—substantive improvements to Wikipedia. These improvements can have a lasting impact even after the course concludes.

Teaching with Wikipedia involves much more than simply getting students to read, edit, and write Wikipedia articles. Wiki Education has developed an entire curriculum that includes training modules (with exercises and comprehension checks) that teach how to write with sources, what constitutes plagiarism, as well as the actual mechanics of editing a Wikipedia article. Wiki Education also has a dashboard that allows faculty to monitor their students’ progress through the trainings, the articles that students decide to create or edit as part of the course, the work students do in their “sandbox,” and the edits that students make to the articles on the production Wikipedia system.

All of the students in my graduate course on data science ethics were familiar with Wikipedia at the start of the semester, of course, but none of my students realized that they could actually edit Wikipedia themselves. Indeed, most of them had been told in high school and college that they should never use Wikipedia as a reference, because it wasn’t reliable. Of course, they still used Wikipedia—they just never admitted it to their teachers.

With this backstory, most of my students were genuinely surprised on the first day of class when I told them about the prominent role that Wikipedia plays in our society—and my belief that, as Wikipedia users, we have a moral obligation to correct incorrect information on the site when they see it. That’s because Wikipedia information is widely incorporated into everything from search engine results to artificial intelligence models, and it’s read by billions of people all over the world.

Quite frankly, my students were stunned that they could click the “Edit” button on a Wikipedia article, make a change, and have the result immediately reflected on Wikipedia. Many of them thought that proposed changes first had to be reviewed by a human editor. Once they understood that all changes were live, they then started to wonder why there wasn’t more vandalism. This engendered a discussion of community norms, social expectations, and both the possibility and danger of having algorithms police online spaces.

Even though I was teaching graduate students, the vast majority of them had never written for an audience other than a teacher or their friends on social media. Many were terrified by the idea that their writing would be on Wikipedia itself, viewable by anyone on the planet. Some were concerned that another Wikipedia editor might come along and criticize, correct, or simply revert what they had done. Most students were able to overcome this fear by the end of the semester. The Wiki Education dashboard made it easy to find the students who were reluctant to edit or write, which made it easy for me to provide additional support.

After students learn the basics of how Wikipedia works and how to edit articles, the Wiki Education program has students choose an article that they will either edit or write from scratch. Here again, there are tools to help students, including lists of “stub” articles in need of expansion. One of my students discovered the WikiProject Women in Red, which seeks to increase the percentage of Wikipedia biographies about women, which gave the class facts and data for discussing the presentation of women online. (As of September 2022, more than 80% of Wikipedia’s biographies are of men.) Another student made significant contributions to a page about a famous American artist. Still another had studied financial history and made significant contributions (including a graph) to better explain an important financial event.

One of the most intellectually engaging aspects of the Wikipedia assignment was what happened after students starting making edits to the article on Wikipedia, outside the safe space of their sandbox. Within days—and sometimes within hours—another Wikipedia editor would edit what my students had done! This sort of direct feedback from individuals outside the classroom was unsettling for many students at first, but it provided external validation that I could never have provided myself.

Occasionally, the edits were misinformed or even misanthropic, which also provided an important opportunity for discussion and analysis. In the intellectual world of Wikipedia, many misunderstandings can be addressed with stronger writing and better references.

Plagiarism is a growing problem in academia, and I wasn’t spared having to address the issue in the Wikipedia assignment. Wikipedia’s platform has a number of very sophisticated plagiarism detection tools. When I had students plagiarize, the student’s edits to their article were reverted and I, as the faculty member, was informed. In my experience, students were more willing to admit wrongdoing and address the underlying issue of plagiarism when the accusation came from Wikipedia than in non-Wikipedia assignments when the accusation came from me, the faculty member.

One of the problems I had with the Wikipedia assignment was conveying to students my expectations for how much work was enough. For many topics, the reason that Wikipedia articles are short or nonexistent is that there is not much in the way of authoritative, citable, secondary sources that meet Wikipedia’s citation standards. Students wanted quantifiable metrics—how many words do we need to contribute to get an A? Many students, trained their entire academic career to write papers of a specific length, were flummoxed by the open-ended nature of the Wikipedia assignment—an assignment that basically instructs students to make a significant contribution to Wikipedia.

The Wiki Education platform also includes a system to allow for peer reviews. That is, students can be assigned to review one or more articles of other students in their class. The underlying platform does a great job facilitating these reviews, and students really do benefit from having their work commented on by other students. Unfortunately, these benefits only accrue if one student actually writes their article when the article is due and the second student actually reviews it on time. Given that it is rare for 100% of the class to get their assignments in on time in part-time masters programs, I found this aspect of the Wikipedia assignment to be more hit-or-miss.

I believe that the Wikipedia assignment is particularly important for students in STEM programs because these programs frequently undervalue the importance of written communication. This is a disservice the students, as the ability to critically evaluate information and write about complex ideas for a general audience is an important professional skill for every scientist and technologist.

The assignment also transformed me and my teaching. It gave me a view into the inner world of my students through a window that would have otherwise been closed, by allowing me to see how people outside the classroom reacted to my students’ work, and to address those issues together with the students.

To learn more about incorporating an assignment like this into higher education courses, visit teach.wikiedu.org for our free assignment templates, dashboard, and support. Read additional instructor testimonials here.


2 thoughts on “Teaching with Wikipedia

  1. I enjoyed this article, and agree with its assessment of some of the major pedagogical benefits of getting students to write for Wikipedia, including making them more attentive to quality, not quantity, in writing – not only in content and sourcing but also style. I also agree that the peer review part of the assignment is hit-or-miss; it has not worked well in my classes, partly also because of the broader semester-timing issues mentioned here. Maybe it would be better to have exercise that draw students’ attention to the optimal structure and organization of Wikipedia articles (lead paragraphs versus sections, and other visual and layout-related elements) – also useful for writing other kinds of papers and reports.

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