Don’t throw away that assignment! Students improve Wikipedia through WikiEdu

“I've always been told not to use Wikipedia since anyone can edit it.”

This student’s sentiment summarizes a common attitude in academia about the online encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s reliability comes with doubts. So when Dr. Nora Haenn of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology was looking for a new way to engage students and re-design a course, the NCSU Libraries approached her with the idea for a Wikipedia assignment to get students thinking about who contributes to Wikipedia and how that information is gathered and written. Haenn's Fall 2017 course “Globalization and Migrations” (IS 395) critically examined public information. Using an open pedagogy grant through the NCSU Libraries’ Alt-Textbook Project, Haenn collaborated with librarians to develop a new course that replaced writing a traditional term paper with making significant contributions to Wikipedia.  

The Wiki Education Foundation offers an alternative to the “disposable assignment” through the WikiEdu Dashboard. The Dashboard facilitates contributions to Wikipedia in a structured and supportive environment, and provides openly licensed resources that help students and instructors understand Wikipedia’s standards and norms. Wikipedia guidelines state that submissions must be “neutral and substantiated.” Entries are constantly screened and verified by an active community of volunteer contributors.

For her class, contributions by Haenn’s students had to be supported with scholarly article citations. So, Hannah Rainey and Erica Hayes, both NCSU Libraries Fellows, led a session for the class on how to search for and identify reputable scholarly articles using library resources.

The power of public writing

Haenn was impressed that this assignment required more than the normal academic rigor, adding the pressure and challenges of “neutral” writing for public consumption. “We spent a good part of our conversations debating what counts as neutral and how people can use language to persuade even under the cover of neutrality,” she said.

Students also had to receive feedback on their writing from external, anonymous users. A few students even had their work taken down or edited soon after posting. “The public quality of their writing spurred them like no other writing assignment I have given in the past,” Haenn observed in a personal blogpost. One student commented: “I believe the most rewarding aspect of this assignment is growing as a writer. Throughout the process, you seek feedback from peers and an expert editor and that challenges you to develop a well thought-out post for your topic.”

By the end of the course, students expressed a sense of pride in contributing to Wikipedia and seeing their work published online. Students also felt an undeniable coolness factor to contributing to Wikipedia. One student even took a screenshot of their entry to share with friends and to preserve its original state before it was edited by another Wikipedia contributor. Another student was selected for an internship based on this unique academic experience.

“I feel knowledgeable when contributing to Wikipedia,” one student noted. “It challenges me to advance my research and get more information within a topic. I feel as if I have become a smarter individual in a variety of topics that we have discussed through Wikipedia.”

“I got a sense of pride after posting and I see now how important it is to try to fill all the information gaps,” another student wrote.

Haenn was pleasantly surprised by many aspects of this assignment, especially how it empowered students in navigating the messy world of online communication. “Social media is omnipresent in their lives,” she said, “but they rarely get to carve out a digital space of their own, one where they can claim knowledgeable expertise.”

Diversity in online authoring

This type of non-disposable assignment not only impacts individuals and classes, but has an important role to play in increasing the diversity of Wikipedia contributors. The gender and race disparity among the Wikipedia community is well-documented. According to the WikiEdu website, only 20% of Wikipedia contributors are female. Since the WikiEdu platform began in 2010, 37,000 articles have been created or improved by student editors, 68% of whom identify as female. In addition to WikiEdu projects, Wikipedia edit-a-thons occur globally to increase the representation of diverse voices on Wikipedia.

Hannah Rainey and Erica Hayes visited Haenn’s class a second time to share their own experiences participating in Art+Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thons. The goal of these edit sessions is to increase the representation and documentation of feminism and art across Wikipedia. Rainey and Hayes also initiated a larger classroom conversation about the values of the open movement, including open source software, open access, open science, open data, and open pedagogy.

Open pedagogy incorporates open educational resources (OERs), nondisposable assignments, and open licensing to enhance a learning environment in which students actively contribute to knowledge. In addition to the Wikipedia assignment, other forms of open pedagogy assignments include student-created podcasts, websites, blogs, and twitter chats. Open pedagogy creates more opportunities for students to share what they’ve learned beyond their classroom walls.

NC State instructors who are interested in incorporating open pedagogy and OERs into their course curriculum can contact the NCSU Libraries. The Libraries accepts grant proposals and provides consultation and support throughout the process.

Learn more about open pedagogy at the NCSU Libraries.