Wikipedia Assignments: some thoughts from mid-semester

Right now I’m teaching a first-year composition class, themed around Wikipedia. This is the third iteration, redesigned with the support of a Faculty Instructional Technology Integration grant, and mid-semester seems like an appropriate moment to share some thoughts about the course. The first section explains the background, but if you just want some tips for designing a Wikipedia assignment, you can jump straight there.

How My Course is Set Up

If you’re interested, the syllabus for this class is available online. This being a first-year writing class, I want students to be able to consider their reader as they write; to evaluate the evidence they use to support their arguments; and to engage with other writers, thinking of writing as civil conversation. My own training is in the Little Red Schoolhouse method, and for this class I’m using several modules from the Grounds for Argument website (which, full disclosure, I worked on when I was a graduate student).

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This student asks, “Is Wikipedia a reliable source?”

The first half of the course introduces students to Wikipedia. Ultimately, I want them to contribute to the site. To do so, they first become familiar with some of the myriad policies and guidelines and then they choose a Wikipedia entry that needs updating, and write a proposal (taking the form of a 3-4 page argument) about what needs to be changed and why. As they research their sources, I have them evaluate each one, using Wikipedia’s own guidelines for reliable sources. Finally, they contribute to the site, making whatever changes they had said needed to be made. This is a major payoff for the course, as students produce knowledge that others outside the class might read. I let students choose their own topic, and they vary widely: some write about their own schools or their hometowns, some write about sports, some find topics from other classes that aren’t covered on Wikipedia, and develop pages for those. The contributions are typically not major — they range from adding sources to writing a few sentences, to creating a page from scratch. I grade students on the detail of the proposal, the quality of the evidence they use, and their own self-evaluation. (I don’t grade them based on whether their change stays on Wikipedia).

This week students are starting the second part of the course, looking at some academic studies of Wikipedia in preparation for their upcoming research paper. At this point my course differs little from other themed composition courses: it borders on cultural studies, with a focus on collectivism, Internet culture, and knowledge-production. I select a handful of articles based on what students seem to be interested in: this semester, it’s history, political activism, global economics, and the gender gap. These articles expose students to ways in which Wikipedia connects to various academic fields. As they start their research papers, they will select a few articles from a list of popular press articles about Wikipedia, which we’ll discuss in class. Then their research papers will develop their own interest. In past semesters the best papers connect Wikipedia to an academic field in which the student is interested — law, biology, computer science, etc.

Tips for Designing a Wikipedia Assignment

Having students write an article for Wikipedia can be a great assignment. In my experience — and many other scholars have done this, too — students are more motivated when they write for an audience that isn’t just their classmates. But there are risks involved. In addition to the first two iterations of this course, I’ve included Wikipedia assignments in a couple literature seminars, in various ways, and I’ve written several posts them. Based on my own successes and failures, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to have your students create Wikipedia assignments (and how I addressed these issues in my own course):

  1. Familiarize yourself with the site, and build in ways to get your students familiar with the guidelines. Wikipedia’s policies are dizzying and byzantine. There’s no way you could learn all of them in a semester, or expect your students to learn them. But you should know at least the five pillars, and how the talk and history pages work. Students should create accounts, so you can track their edits.
    • In class I had groups of students summarize and present Wikipedia’s core policies (verifiability, notability, and neutrality/due weight). The talk and history pages are fascinating in themselves, and good sources for short writing assignments describing evidence. Aaron Swartz builds his argument about “Who Writes Wikipedia?” on evidence from the history pages, and Dan O’Sullivan’s chapter on “Wikipedia: Structure” covers the talk pages in detail.
  2. Decide on the scope of the assignment. If it’s not too obvious to state, this assignment should be linked to your own goals, not Wikipedia’s. The point is not to make Wikipedia better (though see #4) — it’s to make students better writers/researchers/public contributors. The Wikipedia Education Program (see #5) seems to encourage building new articles or making major, substantial contributions. That’s great, if it aligns with your course goals, but more modest changes can be just as useful. Many articles on Wikipedia lack sources: you could even have students browse a list, and beef up the bibliographies with relevant readings from class.
    • Since this was a writing class (the content is secondary), my students first made very minor changes (like fixing punctuation or spelling) to get used to the format, and to get them auto-confirmed. And even the full-scale “add to Wikipedia” assignment was more about finding sources and recognizing the limitations of certain pages.
  3. Decide how you’ll grade. You’re asking for trouble if you grade students based on whether or not their contribution stays on Wikipedia. You’ll know better what your priorities are — maybe it’s researching a topic or writing grammatically correct sentences. But students will naturally worry about their grades, and will worry even more if they feel their grades are subject to the whims of anonymous Wikipedians.
    • I grade students on the quality of their proposals (an argument about what improvements their chosen page needed); the quality of their evidence; and their self-evaluations (an argument whether they’d made the improvements they stated in their proposal). I read their contributions to the site only to confirm the last part.
  4. Act in good faith. Wikipedia is a community, and like most communities, has lots of helpful people, and some jerks. The benefit of adding to Wikipedia is that it puts students in contact with a public outside the college, but that public can be disruptive and mean (Meghan Duffy’s experience is not unusual). You minimize your chances of encountering this kind of disruption if you follow tips 1 and 2, and make sure you are genuinely trying to improve Wikipedia (within the context of your goals for students).
    • The first time I taught this course, I had all my students (three sections) lie to Wikipedia. Don’t do that. The result was pedagogically useful: most of the lies were immediately caught, and within a couple hours the college’s IP address was temporarily blocked from anonymous editing. So students learned that Wikipedia does have some oversight. And one student’s edit remained on the page for over a month, until I deleted it myself. So they also learned that the oversight doesn’t always work. I still don’t recommend this exercise, though: for one thing, it disrupts other users from the same IP address (I inadvertently derailed another professor’s exercise). And I think it sends the wrong message to students — better to integrate them into the Wikipedia community, rather than start by setting them against it.
  5. Consider making your course official. The Wikipedia Education Program, launched in 2010, works with teachers and students to facilitate academic assignments. You can create an official course page (like the one for my course), and you’ll be assigned a mentor/adviser.
    • To be honest, I was initially skeptical of this program, because of #2, above. I wasn’t sure my goals would match up with Wikipedia’s self-interests. Only in the most recent version of the course did I link up with the WEP: I consulted with my assigned adviser as I put together the course, and she was helpful in answering some questions and pointing to some resources (all of which are available through the site). The biggest benefit was a practical and procedural one: using a course page allowed me to keep track of my students contributions.

Have you, or are you considering, developed an assignment for students to add to Wikipedia? How did it go, or what questions do you have?

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