June 7, 2022
Choose a topic and conduct an internet search. The Wikipedia article on that topic is typically within the top 10, if not top 5, results. Because of such high rankings, Wikipedia articles are the sources of choice for many of our students. And, because we teachers often assert that Wikipedia is not an academic-worthy source, this produces a contradiction where the source students are most likely to encounter and read is the source we disallow, or rather refuse to reckon with. Furthermore, we, teachers, disparage Wikipedia’s accuracy, but research reveals that Wikipedia is fairly accurate. In fact, in 2005, Nature published a study that shows Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica were similarly accurate. Why then have we continued to dismiss Wikipedia even as it continues to grow in size and significance?
While it may be true that Wikipedia has been misused by students, Wikipedia can offer so much more if we teachers are able to recognize the opportunities. It allows our students to develop 21st-century skills, like collaboration, digital citizenship, and computational thinking as identified in the ISTE Standards for Students.
Now Wikipedia isn’t completely banned from more formal learning environments. The typical way that teachers permit students to legitimately engage with Wikipedia is to focus on the sources of a Wikipedia page as a means to find information for research. In “Teaching Students How to Use Wikipedia Wisely,” Benjamin Barbour explains how a teacher can direct students to the footnotes and bibliography of a Wikipedia page. In Barbour’s article, he also describes the editorial challenges of an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
However, limiting students to mining the sources on a Wikipedia article limits our students to a passive consumption model of the digital world when our students can be active producers in creating knowledge in a digital environment. Because it is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, becoming an editor unlocks the full learning potential of Wikipedia for our students. Rather, having students edit an article on Wikipedia is Gold Standard PBL, where students also practice ISTE Standards for Students. Contributing knowledge to an article is the equivalent of writing a collaborative research paper. Wikipedia articles have a structure and strict guidelines on sources. All of the same requirements that we demand for more traditional assignments apply to constructing and contributing to Wikipedia articles.
Sometimes, in my Caribbean Literature class, which is an 11th/12th-grade elective, I assign a collaborative Wikipedia article project on an assigned novel instead of the traditional literary analytical essay. Depending on the size of the class, I divide them into small teams of no more than four students, and they have a month to complete their articles. In years past, I assigned each team a novel (but going forward, I will have them choose from a curated list that includes a brief synopsis of each novel—no team works on the same novel). The students then have to read the Wikipedia: Manual of Style/Novels, Wikipedia: Verifiability, Anatomy of a Wikipedia Article, the importance of significant coverage and independent sources, Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View (NPOV), and an example of a featured article on a novel that has passed an “in-depth examination by impartial reviewers”: To Kill a Mockingbird.
After reading all of this scaffolding material, there are only three requirements: first, reading the novel can’t happen during class time; second, each team has to develop a timeline with mini-milestones that includes who does what when; and third, at least six sources that meet Wikipedia’s standard of reliability must be referenced and cited: two peer-reviewed journal articles, two Wikipedia articles, and two Open Educational Resources (OER). The teams don’t even have to choose to actually create or edit a live Wikipedia article. They have three options: edit/create a live Wikipedia article, create the article in a Wikipedia Sandbox, or recreate the format of a Wikipedia article in a Google Doc. I want students to disclose as much about themselves online as they are comfortable with. All three have been chosen. As the teacher, I circulate to check-in and provide feedback.
In being part of the collective authorship of an article, students practice true collaboration with the real stakes of an authentic audience. It is commonplace for students to assume that their teachers are their audience, since we are the ones who read and grade their work. However, as I routinely point out to my students, teachers are an artificial audience. An authentic audience engages a writer’s ideas out of sincere interest. An authentic audience brings different motivations and responds in disparate ways. An authentic audience doesn’t evaluate writing for a grade. With the incorporation of Wikipedia, the teacher’s voice can be appropriately and authentically de-centered and students can participate in the negotiation of creation with their peer co-editors (and others if they choose a live Wikipedia article) to achieve NPOV (Neutral Point of View). When teams choose to create an actual Wikipedia article, they are so excited when a non-class editor makes edits.
This is a big project and is academically rigorous. Students are setting learning goals, leveraging technology to produce artifacts, working in ethical ways with sources, curating resources, practicing systems thinking, communicating clearly, using digital platforms and tools appropriately, and figuring out how to work effectively in teams. Not to mention all of the content and writing skills that are typical in English classes. Students are able to practice and master all of these skills authentically.
For many students, Wikipedia is the place that will most grant them the experience and practice of authentic writing, that is, writing that engages the world and to which the world responds. As teachers, we need to enter into the 21st-century and be able to intuit authentic learning spaces, however non-traditional, wherever they occur. This type of project is not only limited to English or essay-driven departments; they can occur in any discipline. For instance, there are projects like WikiProject Medicine and Wikipedia: WikiProject Medicine/Cochrane that are designed to “produce and share high quality health evidence to as broad an audience as possible because Wikipedia includes a large number of articles on medical topics. In 2013, Wikipedia’s medical content was viewed more than 6 billion times. This was not only greater than the number of page views of the NIH website, but also exceeded the WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and the World Health Organization’s websites combined. Because medical professionals recognize that people use Wikipedia to access medical and health information, there are initiatives to ensure the reliability of that information. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water, they are keeping the baby and contributing to the creation of cleaner bath water. This is an approach that we educators could model. Instead of rejecting one of the most used sources, we could instead use Wikipedia’s transparent structures to have our students make Wikipedia better.
However, if you aren’t quite ready to institute a Wikipedia project in your class, the very least you can do as a 21st-century educator is to help your students determine which Wikipedia articles or parts of an article have met Wikipedia’s standards for citations. Pointing students to More Citations Needed and related templates teaches students how to evaluate the information they are most likely to come across. Ultimately, what we want are students who can consistently and competently assess information to know what can be used when and where, if at all.
You may read more articles by Jeannette Lee-Parikh on Intrepid Ed News.