Wikipedia Assignments: What, How, and Why

This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Wikipedia Assignments: What, How, and Why,” will occur Tuesday, October 20, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, October 21, from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).


Does Wikipedia have a place in a college course? Do you know how your students are using Wikipedia? Well, one way to answer those questions is to have students actually contribute to “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Instead of seeing Wikipedia as an unreliable and nonscholarly reference for your students to consult, consider having them gain some skills in public knowledge construction by adding new content and/or improving existing content on the site.

A growing number of instructors are integrating Wikipedia editing assignments into their courses. Many pedagogical benefits for students have been observed, including:

  • writing for an authentic public audience, which motivates students to do their best work since they are contributing to a “real” and widely used source of information
  • teaching students to navigate the rules and social norms of an online community of knowledge creation
  • helping students to clarify the distinctions and relationships among primary, secondary, and tertiary sources of information and knowledge
  • developing media and information literacy and collaborative research skills
  • engaging students with a variety of feedback to their work and connects them to a community of persons interested in improving knowledge of a given subject or topic
  • providing a rich context for reflection on epistemology, verifiability, neutrality, point of view, and other themes in the philosophy of knowledge

Instructors are not simply on their own in designing these assignments. In fact, the organization that runs Wikipedia recently created the Wiki Education Foundation (@WikiEducation), “which serves as a bridge between academia and Wikipedia.” WikiEdu has developed an extensive set of tutorial resources as well as a streamlined process for setting up a Wikipedia assignment and integrating it into a course. The “For Instructors” page at WikiEdu has links to online training for educators and students, an array of online and printable handout brochures for students covering all aspects of editing on Wikipedia, and guides with case studies and discussions of Wikipedia and the production of knowledge. WikiEdu will also help instructors set up a dedicated Wikipedia page for their class to organize the assignment, and provides a WikiEdu staff person as a liaison and guide.

Students and instructors will learn about both the conceptual principles that undergird Wikipedia as well as the technical aspects of working in the Wikipedia editing environment. There are the “five pillars” that summarize the fundamental principles of Wikipedia, such as embracing the neutral point of view, avoiding original research, establishing the reliability of sources, and respecting copyright and avoiding plagiarism. Students sign up for user accounts on Wikipedia and work through a scaffolded set of exercises designed to familiarize them with the standards, norms, and procedures for editing articles. New users typically establish “credibility” in the Wikipedia community by making small edits on grammar and style and gradually progress to more substantive proposals for changes and additions. Students learn how to interact with other users who have already worked on an entry and who may support or contest new revisions or updates.

Here at Austin College, Erin Copple Smith incorporated a Wikipedia assignment into her Fall 2015 course, “Hollywood Stars.” Erin developed a very thorough description of the assignment for her students, which might well serve as a guide for other interested faculty. As she explains,

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia written, edited, and curated by internet users. It’s an incredible resource and one worth learning more about, which is why students will be undertaking this assignment. Throughout the process of becoming a Wikipedian, students will learn about Wikipedia’s nature and development, come to appreciate the complexities and advantages of online collaboration, and contribute meaningfully to the distribution of knowledge by adding to or creating their own Wikipedia entry. Moreover, they will gain firsthand experience doing proper historical research into stars and celebrities.

Erin worked with the folks at WikiEdu to set up the course wiki page and a detailed week-by-week timeline of assignment expectations and milestones. There are two versions of the course page: one that is public, and another with additional information that is password protected so that only she and her students have access. All student work is tracked so that Erin can easily follow each student’s activity in Wikipedia. The assignment moves toward two final deliverables: (1) a contribution of at least 400 words to an existing Wikipedia entry or the development of a new Wikipedia entry on a star of one’s choice, including the addition of at last eight reputable resources to the page’s references; and (2) a 3-5 page reflective paper, in which students engage with the following questions:

What did you learn about your subject? What did you learn about the research process and the act of contributing to scholarly assessment of stars in a popular/populist venue? What did you learn about Wikipedia and the way we produce and consume “facts” today? Most importantly: How does a resource like Wikipedia contribute to the formation of star images as discussed over the course of the semester?

So if you’d like to know more about what a Wikipedia assignment might look like in your class, and get some first hand experience editing Wikipedia articles, join us for this week’s digital pedagogy workshop.

Curated Resources

DP Activity: Wikipedia Assignment

Here’s a potentially useful activity using Wikipedia, from a post over on The Conversation by Ellis Jones.

What I like about this “adopt-a-theorist’s-Wikipedia-page” assignment is that it gets students thinking about the way scholarly work often both is produced and managed: collaboratively and as a process over time, as opposed to solitarily and all at once in a moment of inspiration.

In addition, through engagement with existing pages on Wikipedia over time, students also get to engage with “others who share their interest in improving the quality of information available on a subject they care about.”  Since this happens within the Wikipedia interface, students have the opportunity to enter into dialogue both with the received wisdom Ellis refers to regarding the limited nature of the site’s usefulness, and with their own potentially ingrained notions about the site’s accuracy and efficacy at a given moment in time.

This kind of assignment could be effectively used in a wide range of disciplines, and if even a few students in each course take it seriously and do the work diligently, we all benefit from their contributions to the site down the road.