Each term, I’m charged with reviewing and assessing the Wikipedia Student Program. It’s a time intensive process which is why these posts often appear several months after the completion of a term. It would be easy for us at Wiki Education to simply say that one term is like another. Thousands of students from hundreds of post-secondary institutions contribute millions of words to Wikipedia, and the world lives on happily ever after with countless topics improved for the public at large. True as that may be, each term brings its own experiences and learning opportunities for us at Wiki Education and a chance for us to highlight the amazing work of our students and faculty.
The quantitative achievements of our students are nothing short of impressive! While numbers only tell a small part of the story, they demonstrate the sheer scale of the impact students can have on Wikipedia in a given term. In Fall 2022, we supported 363 courses and 6,460 students.
- added 4.8 million words
- added 50,100 references
- worked on 6,300 articles
- created 497 new entries
And as always, their work was viewed hundreds of millions of times in the fall alone. Our students make up a small fraction of all students in higher education, and yet their contributions to Wikipedia and public knowledge are immense. As one of our instructors wrote, “One of the most profound experiences my graduate students have when doing this assignment is the realization of their own expertise in an area. I talk about how only 6% of Americans have a masters degree, and therefore it is their responsibility as experts in their field to ensure the content on Wikipedia is held to the highest standard, and that the way to keep it the resource that it is is for citizens like themselves to take pride and ownership in its development. I also emphasize how it is a privilege to be in Higher Education, and that they need to share this with the world, not keep it to themselves. It is their duty to share their knowledge. They take so much pride in this assignment/opportunity.” Ultimately, these numbers represent the opening up of knowledge to millions of people who otherwise might struggle to find reliable information.
Building community on and off line
When students engage in the Wikipedia assignment, they necessarily join the vibrant community of Wikipedia editors. Contributing to Wikipedia is inherently a communal act, and students learn how to construct knowledge in a collaborative setting. As one instructor wrote, “A few of my students actually started chatting with other wiki editors as they added content to their articles. It was a great experience feeling they were part of a community that was building knowledge.”
What’s less obvious are the types of offline communal engagements that the Wikipedia assignment can foster. Students often report that contributing to Wikipedia helps them to develop an authoritative voice and enables them to feel like members of an expert community. In the words of one student, “I can see how far I have come with reading and analyzing difficult research journals. I can share my findings with the public and make a difference in the science community.” Another student remarked on how the Wikipedia project opened their eyes to the inequities in mental health treatment globally and how this will inform how they interact with future patients. “When I thought about mental health inequalities, I often thought about different disparities between gender, age, race, sexual orientation, and education levels. It didn’t come to mind that not every country’s mental health system is as advanced as ours. Through doing this project, my eyes were opened to many injustices on a global scale. I think this information will be useful when working with clients with different backgrounds than my own and will help advance my clinical work.”
The Wikipedia assignment is also a way for many students to connect with their local communities or places of origin. One instructor remarked, “My favorite outcome was seeing a student from Uruguay add content to a stub article on a television network in Uruguay. That opportunity to add information about his home country was exciting to me, and he did an amazing job.” Another instructor described how one of their students wrote about a museum and visited the museum to let them know they were contributing to their Wikipedia entry. “That student reported feeling very empowered and connected to her community as a result.” Despite its online format, it’s clear that the Wikipedia assignment can help students forge community both on and offline.
A pedagogical tool
Of course, the most obvious community to which students belong is their institution and their individual classes. The Wikipedia assignment can also play a critical role in shaping a class and forging a more dynamic community of faculty and students. Students and faculty often express that they are less than enthused at the prospect of writing and grading traditional term papers. The Wikipedia assignment offers both instructors and students a chance to engage in authentic work that has the potential to resonate far beyond the class. As one instructor noted,
“It is much more fulfilling for students to see their research efforts out in the world, for everyone’s benefit, rather than writing a paper which sits on my desk.”
Another instructor remarked, “I feel more accomplished by helping them contribute to real world information, but also, their Wikipedia reflective essays are one of the most rewarding assignments to grade.”
Apart from engaging in work with real world applications, the Wikipedia assignment often results in an atmosphere of collaboration.
“I always enjoy the dynamic created by the Wikipedia assignments,” wrote one instructor. “I become a coach as students navigate an authentic audience for the work they are doing.”
The overwhelming majority of instructors in our program have no prior experience contributing to Wikipedia. They are in many cases learning alongside their students which just reinforces the democratic spirit of Wikipedia. As another instructor explained, “The collaborative research was fun. I think it helped students to work with each other but also for me to work with them, too: we struggled together, and they thereby gained windows into the world of real scholarship! (Professors struggle to learn, to write, to revise, too!)”
The Wikipedia assignment also has the potential to build a real foundation of trust between instructors and students. In the words of one instructor, “The students really seemed to appreciate that I trusted them to make real edits to a Wikipedia article, and that I gave them a meaningful, challenging assignment.” The public-facing nature of the Wikipedia assignment can be daunting. Instructors who run Wikipedia assignments are often challenging their students to reach beyond their comfort zones, but they are also imparting a confidence in their abilities that is hard to replicate. This trust reinforces the collegial spirit of the Wikipedia project and allows students to feel like experts with something to contribute. “It forces them to ‘grow up’ and be confident in themselves an in their knowledge and understanding of this field,” wrote one instructor.
A novel way to build critical skills
The Wikipedia assignment resonates both within and beyond the classroom, but it also has the potential to impact students on an individual level. The Wikipedia assignment excels not just in helping students to develop critical academic and professional skills, but it brings these skills together in a cohesive and complementary way.
It’s almost cliche at this point to say that digital literacy skills are critical for today’s students, but it’s also no exaggeration to note that the Wikipedia assignment tackles digital literacy in a way that is difficult to replicate in other projects. 99% of instructors agree that the Wikipedia assignment helps their students to develop and hone digital literacy skills, and 95% believe that the project improves their students’ research abilities. Sourcing lies at the heart of the Wikipedia assignment, and students must learn to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. As one instructor noted,
“The Wikipedia assignment made students more aware of the importance of revising one’s writing, remaining attentive to copyright issues, and scrupulously citing sources.”
Another asserted that “the students learned to give and receive constructive feedback through the peer review process.” Yet another instructor reported that the assignment is “the very best tool for the teaching of academic writing!” The combination of skills students obtain from learning to contribute to Wikipedia positions them to take on the complex information landscape of today.
Wikipedia’s strict policy against close paraphrasing also means that students have to truly understand the sources they’re consulting. They have to be able to comprehend the material such that they can put it into their own words and translate often highly specialized and technical information into accessible language. One student last term reflected, “Contributing to Wikipedia has been a great assignment and is nothing like I have done in college so far. It has taught me how to effectively summarize long research journals/experiments, explain scientific evidence and refrain from using scientific jargon. Thoroughly reading through two scientific journals helped me become a stronger student by challenging me to understand concepts on my own.”
Making their work available for the public at large not only enables students to strengthen important skills, but it ultimately heightens their sense of digital citizenship. In moving from knowledge consumer to knowledge producer, students begin to understand the depth of responsibility that goes into making knowledge reliable and accessible to the general population. They understand that as college students, they are in a position of knowledge privilege and they can do good in the world by sharing that knowledge. As one student wrote, “I gained the understanding that, as an individual nearly-competent in my field of study and reasonably technologically-literate, that I can properly navigate primary sources and convert generally inaccessible primary source research into content digestible for the general public, which is simultaneously one of the grandest and smallest contributions to the world that I could possibly make.”
Thank you to all of our faculty and students from Fall 2022! We’re immensely grateful to your ongoing devotion to this endeavor. We take great satisfaction from the knowledge that Wiki Education’s support, “small” though it might be, played some role in your “grand” achievements.
Learn more about incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your course of any discipline at teach.wikiedu.org.