Wikipedia came into being back in 2001. It is very old in internet terms, but its age means that its pedagogical benefits are now becoming more deeply understood.
More and more universities are using Wikipedia and Wikimedia sites as a platform to develop learners’ digital literacy, critical understanding and collaborative skills. According to the Wikimedia Foundation, "More than 6,500 students have participated in the Wikipedia Education Program around the world, adding the equivalent of 45,000 printed pages of quality content to more than 10,000 Wikipedia articles in multiple languages."
There are many ways to use Wikipedia to support education but there are challenges too. The editing process, and more importantly the collaborative culture, can be confusing for first time contributors, so it is worth remembering that Wikipedians are flesh-and-blood people who, approached in the right way, will welcome and support learners.
Jisc and Wikimedia UK have been documenting successful Wikipedia assignments and helping connect educators and researchers to appropriate expertise.
1. Review sources
Wikipedia is widely used as a first port of call for learners in researching a particular subject, but neither Wikipedians nor information professionals want it to be treated as a black box delivering authoritative knowledge.
On the contrary, learners benefit from looking under the bonnet, whether by using ‘View history’ to see an article’s evolution over time or clicking ‘Talk’ to reveal the article’s discussion and quality reviews. Sources and their trustworthiness - and why you cannot just link to whatever comes up in a Google search - are frequent topics in these behind the scenes debates.
Wikipedia’s open processes mean that learners can get involved in reviewing and even improving the material they are given, in contrast to a textbook whose editorial process is hidden away.
Rather than telling students to pretend Wikipedia does not exist, universities could get students in the habit of reading reviews of an article, checking how recently it has been edited, reviewing past versions and looking at what information is potentially missing.
The Foundation has created Evaluating Wikipedia Article Quality, a freely available PDF booklet for beginners.
There is also an introduction to the different quality grades, with links to more detailed criteria.
2. Publish and create new content
Reading about a topic is one thing, but actually getting learners to contribute to content around that subject can add real value to the learning process.
In summarising human knowledge to freely share with everyone on the planet, as Wikipedia strives to do, the site involves an enormous community in the same literature review process that is crucial in scholarly research. By improving an article, Wikipedians consider reliability, comprehensiveness, the representation of controversy or diverse viewpoints, and the subtleties of tone.
There are a number of requirements to understand before students can have work published on Wikipedia, and much to learn from this open publishing process. “Anyone can edit” does not mean that Wikipedia is vanity publishing: any factual claims should be verifiable in published, reliable sources.
Wikipedia is an original published work, so copying and pasting from copyrighted sources is a definite no-no and will easily be discovered.
The criteria for originally worded statements of fact, with citations to reliable, published sources that are independent and neutral, can be explored as part of a classroom discussion. The task can be made concrete by having the class discuss a particular sentence and how it could be improved.
3. Collaborate with volunteer editors
Wikipedia is a collaborative project and a surprising proportion of content is created by learners at universities. At the moment in the area of psychology, nearly all the new article development is being done by student assignments.
Engaging with a community of active volunteer editors is an educational opportunity in itself. In assignments being run at the moment in the University of Hull and the University of Portsmouth, students earn credit by interacting constructively with Wikipedians.
Each learner should create a user account. This means that other users can contact them and also makes their activity visible in a contributions record. Delving into article histories and user contributions, I can see all the changes made by one learner, or all the changes to one article during a course.
Any controversy or difference of opinion with other editors should be discussed on the article's Talk page, getting more perspectives if the discussion does not progress. Don't ever get into an edit war where an article is changed back and forth between different versions.
Some topics are high-traffic and you will get a response to a proposal quite quickly. Others are monitored less and discussion might be inactive for months. Look for relevant Wikiprojects: these are notice boards frequented by experts and interested amateurs. For instance there is a Wikiproject Medicine, Wikiproject Art, and so on. You can use these notice boards to draw attention to issues or questions about a particular article.
Rather than dive straight into editing articles, students can practice writing drafts, getting feedback from tutors, Wikipedians and each other, before pasting them into the article.
This short guide explains how tutors, learners, and Wikipedians can work together on successful assignments.
While Wikipedia may be almost 15 years old, it is an ever-evolving platform for information and collaboration, making it ripe for use in education while building its value as a free, global encyclopaedia.
What are your experiences of using Wikipedia? What tips can you share or what challenges have you faced? Let us know in the comments section.
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About the author
Martin Poulter is the Jisc Wikimedia ambassador.
Martin explored the use of Wikipedia as a teaching tool at the recent Jisc Digital Festival, which brought together experts and providers from the higher education, further education, research and skills sectors to share ideas, inspiration and best practice.