Wikipedia Editing In the Classroom

by Dr. Judith Ogilvie, Biology

Wikipedia provides an opportunity for students to enrich their understanding of course material while mastering fun, new technology and serving the worldwide community of Wikipedia users. I had recently read an article about editing Wikipedia in the classroom when several students approached me about taking my Developmental Biology Course for Honors Credit. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for a trial run. The students were so enthusiastic that, the following spring, I incorporated Wikipedia editing into the curriculum for my graduate-level course on Signal Transduction. By this time, the Wikipedia Education Program had been established with many new resources available for professors and students. I learned a lot from these experiences that seem to be worth sharing for anyone else considering signing up.

What is the Wikipedia Education Program?

“The idea behind the Wikipedia Education Program is simple: Professors around the world assign their students to contribute to Wikipedia for class assignments.”1

What resources are available? Lots! Information for educators, volunteers, and students can be found at the Wikipedia Education Program web site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Education_program.

Why incorporate Wikipedia editing in your classroom?

Like any written assignment, editing Wikipedia articles can be used to develop research, writing and communication skills. But there are a few valuable differences:

  • By becoming producers of information on Wikipedia (WP), students become better consumers of information. Wikipedia is the first place students look for information. They know that it may not be a reliable resource, but tend to trust it anyway. Writing or editing Wikipedia articles helps students to think critically about where the information comes from, the degree of reliability for any statement, and how and when to use WP as a resource.
  • Unlike so many college writing assignments that are only read by one professor before ending up in a file folder or recycle bin, students take great pride in knowing that thousands or millions of people around the world may read their work.

What might a Wikipedia editing assignment look like?

My course page can be found at this web site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Biolprof/Signal_Transduction_Spring_2013_Revisions. It includes nine assignments distributed throughout the semester in order to keep everyone on track for a successful outcome. Anyone is welcome to use any parts of it that you might find helpful in designing your own course.

Some reflections and recommendations from my two semesters with Wikipedia in my classroom.

  • Make the time to become familiar with WP policies, as well as the mechanics of editing. Go through the instructor training. The material is frequently being modified and improved.
  • Accept that you don’t have complete ownership of a Wikipedia editing assignment. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with many rules and guidelines. Original research is not allowed and, in most cases, secondary sources are preferred over primary sources. All writing should maintain a neutral point of view. You should make sure that the goals of Wikipedia are consistent with the goals of your course before developing a Wikipedia assignment for your class.
  • Wikipedia incorporates an entire community of Wikipedians, or dedicated editors. Each has their own interests, priorities, personalities, but all of them committed to improving WP. Become a part of this community! Seek an on-line ambassador that will take an active role in your class. I found it very helpful to set aside one class period for a Q&A Skype session with our Ambassador. Note that if an experienced Wikipedian thinks that a student contribution makes a WP article worse, they can (and usually will) revert the edits made by your student. The assistance of an Ambassador can be a tremendous help in, first, preventing this from happening, and second, navigating a resolution should it occur.
  • Like any written assignment, grading can be very time consuming if you have a large class. Because of the structure and style of writing for Wikipedia, it is essential to have many benchmarks along the way. You will want to make sure that you have time for this during your busy semester.
  • Plagiarism is a major concern on Wikipedia, as it can be in the classroom. There is an excellent article on WP clarifying the boundaries between acceptable citations and plagiarism or too-close paraphrasing.2 You can use this as a tool to have your students look for evidence of plagiarism in current WP articles.
  • Finally, students have let me know that they found Wikipedia editing to be among the most rewarding and interesting written assignment that they have done. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, invited us to “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” It is, indeed, very rewarding to be a part of that effort.

1 https://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Education_Program

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2009-04-13/Dispatches

3-26-14_Ogilvie_picDr. Judith Ogilvie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology where she teaches a variety of courses related to cell and molecular biology. Her research investigates development and degeneration in the vertebrate retina.

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