Timely, factual, neutral education around public policy for the masses

For public policy students, writing for Wikipedia is a way of participating in conversations important to our democracy. Students embody a new and important role: conveyors of fact and truth. They must ask themselves, What information are people looking for? What sources are most trustworthy? What is the right tone? 

Aaron Franklin, J.D. student at Stanford Law

Aaron Franklin, a third-year at Stanford Law, created the Wikipedia article about Independent state legislature theory just months before the Supreme Court would consider the once fringe legal theory in one of the most significant election law cases ever. Thousands would likely visit Wikipedia once the case hit the news cycle, so he wanted to strike the right tone.

“It was especially important for me to accurately represent the textualist and originalist logic behind the independent state legislature theory in a way that adhered to Wikipedia’s neutrality principles,” Aaron shared. “I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of exactly how ISL purports to interpret our constitution, which will hopefully allow them to develop their own sense of whether that interpretation is plausible or not.”

Through Wikipedia assignments, students can funnel academic research from behind paywalls out into the general public, letting readers make up their own minds about topics important to our democracy. 70,500 readers have now visited the article about ISL that Aaron created and that number continues to rise.

Political scientist and policy expert, Erzsebet Fazekas, led a Wikipedia assignment last Spring at the University at Albany. The course page invites students to practice the role they may embody in a future career in policy: explaining complex topics in a clear and fair way.

“Working in international development or in other internationally focused careers means working in a community of practice where members have unequal access to knowledge,” Dr. Fazekas writes to students. “Your job will entail strategically and effectively synthesizing and communicating knowledge to people in an accessible, balanced and inclusive way to fill knowledge gaps. This assignment will prepare you to do that.”

Students chose to update Wikipedia articles about the public management of humanitarian disasters, comparing public management tools across countries to address policy issues like refugee settlement and the COVID-19 pandemic. One student edited the article about procurement, or the purchasing of goods and services through a competitive bidding process. Thanks to them, the article now has a detailed section about “public procurement,” or how governments purchase goods and services for taxpayers. These additions explain the power of public procurement to cultivate economic growth, but also the associated challenges. It’s difficult to measure effectiveness, and there’s a risk that bribery will influence how procurements are distributed. 220,000 readers have visited the page since the student added this information.

Another student in the course chose to edit the article about public policy. It now states that drawing upon data science when making public policy decisions improves public services and mitigates errors and fraud. 163,000 readers have visited the page since the student made this addition last year.

Another student worked on the humanitarian crisis article, adding an entire section on how the United Nations and non-governmental organizations work together to manage them. The student wrote about the elements needed for successful management, including efficient coordination and communication between actors, working at both international and local levels, and centering the needs of those most at risk. This particular article has reached 18,550 readers since last year.

Helen Choi
Dr. Helen Choi has led Wikipedia assignments with more than 400 total students at the University of Southern California

Wikipedia assignments are an effective way to channel academic research into highly relevant Wikipedia articles. As classrooms became remote at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Helen Choi’s engineering students made sure the article about Zoom video technology told students of their data privacy rights–informing more than 1.2 million readers that month and inspiring additional Wikipedians to expand the privacy section further. A business law student from Babson College expanded the COVID-19 section of the eviction in the United States section, updating with the changes to eviction law during the pandemic. Wikipedia editing is a way of putting timely, factual information into the hands of the public right as they’re looking for that information.

With the publication of Neil Thompson’s latest Wikipedia-related research, Trial by Internet, we understand Wikipedia’s importance not only to the public sphere but to the legal system broadly. Experimenters examined the invisible flows of information from Wikipedia to the Irish legal system, posting a set of 77 new Wikipedia articles about cases decided by the Supreme Court of Ireland. They analyzed subsequent decisions out of Ireland’s lower courts, finding that the cases with Wikipedia articles were 21% more likely to be cited as precedents and that lower court decisions drew on the Wikipedia articles in framing these precedents and their meaning. It seems that Wikipedia plays a big (if unacknowledged) role in keeping this knowledge system running–not just informing the public, but also the lawmakers.

As Amanda Levendowski, a law professor at Georgetown University, said, “It’s hard to imagine a more powerful way to further the public’s understanding of law and justice than by empowering law students to improve Wikipedia articles about those laws.” Wiki Education will help you guide your students to do so.

Learn more about incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your course of any discipline at teach.wikiedu.org.


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