Wikipedia in the Liberal Arts Classroom?

Is a Wikipedia assignment appropriate for the liberal arts classroom? Incorporating Wikipedia assignments into college classes isn’t new. For instance, in 2008 Jon Beasley-Murray assigned students in his University of British Columbia course on Latin American literature to create or edit or create Wikipedia entries on selected novels and bring them up to “Featured Article” status; 3 out of 12  achieved this status, and 8 others were ranked “good.” On the whole, Murray suggests that the assignment improved students’ critical thinking skills, since they had to determine what is a good research source and how to meet Wikipedia’s standards. Likewise, Jeremy Boggs says that assigning his history students to create a Wikipedia entry ranks as “one of my most successful assignments,” since students learned the differences between informative and argumentative writing, honed their research and writing skills, and came to understand the advantages and disadvantages of Wikipedia as a research source. Students not only created an entry, but also watched how the page changed as others edited it; they then wrote a reflective essay analyzing their experience with Wikipedia.

Now the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization for Wikipedia, is actively seeking partnerships with academia to increase participation in the Wikipedia community, improve the quality of Wikipedia, and benefit education. This summer I was fortunate to attend the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit, in which students, faculty, and volunteer support staff (aka campus and online ambassadors) came together to explore integrating Wikipedia into the curriculum. The Summit served as the culminating event for the Public Policy Initiative, a one-year pilot program in which students in public policy courses created or substantially enhanced Wikipedia entries. I was invited to attend the Summit because I served as a Campus Ambassador when I was at my former position at Rice, providing in-person training and support.  Based on my experiences as an ambassador and at the Summit, I believe that liberal arts classes can promote project-based learning, public engagement, and twenty-first century skills by engaging with Wikipedia’s campus programs.

Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit 2011

Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit 2011, by ragesoss

Although Wikipedia still faces some resistance in academia, I was impressed by the case that the Wikimedia Foundation makes for collaborating with higher education both to improve Wikipedia and to enhance students’ writing, research, collaborative, and critical thinking skills.  By creating Wikipedia entries, students develop information literacy skills in an authentic way, since they must find reliable sources, present information clearly and concisely, and meet Wikipedia’s standards for ensuring the clarity of writing and the “verifiability” of information. Students typically receive feedback on their work not only from their professors, but also from online and/or campus ambassadors and Wikipedia editors.  For some students, this feedback can be intense, but it also exposes them to multiple perspectives and provides real-world reviews of their work. Instead of writing just for their professor, students contribute to a public reference source that is currently one of the top 10 most visited site on the Web. Indeed, student Wikipedians reported the thrill of having numerous page views of their work, a number that often increased if their work was featured on Wikipededia’s home page in the “did you know” or featured article section.

What interests me most about Wikipedia is its culture—what motivates people to get and stay involved, how disputes are mediated, how a project run mostly by volunteers has managed to produce “more than 8 billion words in 19 million articles in approximately 270 languages” (emphasis in original).  Rather than being a free-for-all, Wikipedia has developed a set of policies governing how content should be created and edited, as well as a process for evaluating contributions and mediating disputes. Students have an opportunity to learn in an immersive way about networked culture by participating in Wikipedia. For the students who attended the Summit (who probably are among the most engaged), the opportunity to make substantial contributions seem to empower them. For instance, the Regional Ambassador for Louisiana and Texas, a sophomore, facilitated a meeting with greater finesse, creativity and poise than many an experienced professional. Since the Wikipedia community tends to value people for their contributions more than their credentials, the students affiliated with it seem to rise to the challenge and demonstrate their own commitment and expertise.  As colleges encourage students to engage in service learning, networked learning and public research projects, the community of students involved in Wikipedia serves as a compelling model.

In creating a Wikipedia entry, one not only has to navigate the wiki editing interface, but perhaps more importantly comprehend the complexities of Wikipedia’s policies and culture. To help students and faculty understand how Wikipedia works, the Wikimedia Foundation has created a compelling two-pronged model of support: Campus Ambassadors, typically students, staff or community members affiliated with a local college who conduct in-person outreach to faculty and students, run in-class or supplemental workshops, and are available to work with classes; and Online Ambassadors, who are paired with individual students to answer questions and provide feedback on their work via email, chat, Skype, in-wiki communication or other networked technologies. As liberal arts colleges explore distributed learning models, where students at different locations work on a common project or hold common meetings, they may want to adapt the support model used by Wikipedia, which combines local and networked support.

Although I believe that a Wikipedia assignment could work in a number of courses (indeed, faculty from a range of disciplines were represented at the Summit), I should acknowledge certain limitations.  The participants in Wikipedia’s student panel said it took a lot of time to produce a Wikipedia entry, much more time than a traditional assignment, so instructors should plan accordingly. Some students stumble because they don’t understand the genre of Wikipedia articles and try to write an argumentative essay rather than an encyclopedia entry, so their contributions may be deleted for not meeting Wikipedia’s neutral point of view criterion. Finding the right topic—one that is focused and informational rather than broad and argumentative—is key. Evaluating student contributions to Wikipedia can be tricky, since each entry is by nature collaborative and fluid; indeed, evaluation was a topic of concern for many faculty at the Summit. Some professors required students to hand in a Word version of their work so they would have a fixed version to evaluate, while others asked students to describe their contributions in reflective essays. The Wikimedia Foundation offers a detailed rubric so that students understand exactly how their contributions will be evaluated. In addition, it is collaborating with Rosta Farzan of Carnegie Mellon to develop course tools that should facilitate using Wikipedia assignments in classes.

Most of the institutions participating in the Public Policy Initiative were research or larger state universities, but I believe that liberal arts colleges would be strong partners for the broader Higher Education initiative. A Wikipedia assignment could meet some of the high-impact practices of liberal education, in that it can engage students in visible, collaborative production of knowledge and hone their research and writing skills. If you are interested in incorporating Wikipedia into your class, please see

Full disclosure: The Wikimedia Foundation covered participants’ travel costs to attend the Summit, including mine.

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Posted on September 12, 2011 at 8:17 am by Lisa Spiro · Permalink
In: Pedagogy · Tagged with: , , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Sean Andrews
    on September 13, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I like the idea of this kind of assignment. It shows students the process that goes into making a wikipedia article, which would hopefully also make them more critical of other articles. On the other hand, the rhetorician in me feels learning how to write (and recognize) argumentation is crucial to the undergraduate education. Maybe, like in a public speaking class, they should have this be an “informative” speech, which is followed by a “persuasive” form of online activity (writing a blog post, etc.)

  2. Written by Brett Boessen
    on September 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

    I love the idea, and I’ve experimented with it in my classes. But what I’ve run into is a fairly limited number of Wikipedia pages relevant to my specific topic — say film noir, which I have taught twice — that are in need of enough improvement to warrant assigning them to the class.

    Did you discuss this kind of problem at the Summit, and if so, what were some suggestions?

  3. Written by Lisa Spiro
    on September 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Hi Brett,

    Sorry for the delayed response; I totally missed your incisive question. Identifying topics that need to be covered in more depth in Wikipedia is indeed a challenge. You could check Wikipedia’s list of stubs, or articles in need of expansion: In some areas (but apparently not film), there are established Projects in which members of the Wikipedia community are working together to improve coverage of a topic such as the circus or Norse history and culture: As a first step, perhaps you could invite students to review Wikipedia entries on your topic and note any weaknesses or gaps. Thanks for the question!

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