Teaching With Wikipedia

[modified from Teaching (more than) just writing with Wikipedia]

I’ve been teaching with Wikipedia since 2011. It hasn’t always been an “easy” experience, but it has easily been the most rewarding tool I’ve used in the classroom.

Not only is Wikipedia an excellent pedagogical tool, but it’s also incredibly relevant to college students. Recently, I asked a group of 20 students if they had ever used Encyclopedia Britannica. Only one raised their hand. When I asked how many of them had used Wikipedia in the last week, all of them raised their hands. However, when I asked how many have ever edited Wikipedia, it was down to one. Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia they know. It’s where they are getting their information, ­even though few ever examine how Wikipedia works.

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” 
– Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales


[Find this and other helpful guides at WikiEdu.org.]

Digital Literacy and Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a strong pedagogical tool for teaching all sorts of critical tools. It forces students to cite properly, practice peer review, participate in “public” writing, and learn how to format a literature review. As articles evolve over time, students return to them, learning editing skills and understanding the writing process.

Teaching with Wikipedia opens a space to teach more than just writing, or whatever ­topic might be at hand. With its collaborative and connected nature of authorship, and the systemic biases that plague many online environments, Wikipedia is an incredible place for students to learn about collective intelligence, epistemology, combating systemic biases, and digital literacy through embodied practice.

I have received enormous positive feedback for these classes, from both students and colleagues, resulting in teaching awards for a required class that, taught traditionally, most students find “boring.” A few of these student’s quotes:

“Not to be over­dramatic, but [your] class changed my worldview. It was a great exercise in writing, but for me it drove home a sort of globalism that I had always understood but never really experienced before. People get annoyed when I talk about Wikipedia now because I can’t shut up about how incredible (and under appreciated) a tool it is.”

“I’ve learned more in this class than many others… I’ve never done as much research as I did in this class, but it was really fun and now my work is published online.”

(This student made nearly 50 citations in her article – when have you seen that in assigned Undergraduate papers?).

Four Learnings

I started teaching Wikipedia through my interest in open­ access activism and commons­-based outreach groups. I wanted get students involved with knowledge commons. I wanted to see them invested and excited about the quality of their projects, ensuring their critical engagement with the subject matter and their daily lives. Integrating Wikipedia­-based assignments instead of traditional papers helps teach a few things at once:

1. Collective Intelligence

Wikipedia creates new ways for the students to understand ideas about the creation of knowledge and of collective intelligence. I ask my students to think about their projects as “parents,” as no parent can control the child forever. Eventually, the community takes responsibility for caretaking. This leads to interesting metaphors for writing and digital labor, but the idea is the same. The editor is not an “authoritarian” author ­type that is solely responsible for knowledge creation. They’re part of a team, albeit an important one, that helps to “birth” the article from a collection of knowledge they’ve gathered. Students find themselves relying on co­editors and peer reviewers to give extensive feedback, and contribute to the article.


2. Epistemology

Through this process, students begin to better understand epistemology (theories of knowledge) in general, seeing wiki links and bibliographies as traces of a history of the knowledge they are participating in accounting. Most students are told to “never use” Wikipedia, but by understanding how Wikipedia works, they learn that Wikipedia is often a great starting point, and to keep digging through a bibliography (as many academics do, whether in traditional papers, or even Wikipedia).

3. Digital Literacy

Wikipedia creates a space where students begin to question the validity and verifiability of information. One of the first exercises is evaluating a Wikipedia article, before they suggest edits. Through understanding how Wikipedia uses citations, and the hierarchy of knowledge, students begin to question what they use every day. Not to say that Wikipedia isn’t just as reliable than anything else (it often is), but it makes for an excellent exercise in digital literacy.


4. Countering Systemic Biases

Most students are unaware of the systemic bias problems that plague Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia remains “the encyclopedia anyone can edit,” most have never even made a small grammar correction, let alone created a username. In my courses, the majority of students are women, and find Wikipedia lacking in articles about feminist, media, and gender issues that they themselves are passionate about. After my first course, one of my students reflected in an interview, “I think that if the gender gap was advertised more, it would make women want to edit more.”