In July 2006, Andy Carvin, host of the PBS blog, examined the attitude of teachers toward using Wikipedia in the classroom. [1] He asked: “Are educators hostile to Wikipedia?”. The answers ranged from one high school teacher who told Andy “Most colleagues had never seen Wikipedia, never intended to go there, and some had already warned their students that they were not to use Wikipedia for class projects” to another teacher who objected “I use Wikipedia all the time as a quick way to get a first pass on a subject I’m not familiar with, and I don’t see any reason why students shouldn’t be taught to use it the same way.” Most of the participants were arguing about whether their students should use Wikipedia as a source of information, not whether the students should contribute to it.

Carvin had already pointed out in 2005 that asking students to actively contribute to Wikipedia might be a model worth exploring [2]. Now, he stated: “It may be just a matter of time before we see highly organized educational activities, with teams of students from around the world working together to improve the quality of content on Wikipedia.” [1]

The past year

The past year has shown that those educational activities that Andy Carvin was envisioning in 2005 can be an effective means of improving Wikipedia’s quality. Building on the experiences of teachers like Jon Beasley-Murray (Was introducing Wikipedia to the classroom an act of madness leading only to mayhem if not murder?) and others, the Wikimedia Foundation started an experimental pilot project (the Public Policy Initiative) to explore the challenges and opportunities of student-based Wikipedia-editing on a larger scale. More than 800 students from 22 U.S. universities contributed about 5,600 pages of high quality content to the English Wikipedia. Articles written by those students improved by an average of 140 percent. Moreover, our pilot project sparked a high level of interest from media and teachers around the world.

Over the initial 12 months of the pilot project, we have built a strong knowledge base about running a class-based program as well as the tools needed to implement it (training handbooks, brochures on how to start editing, how-to videos, sample syllabi, etc.) We have also recruited and trained Wikipedia Ambassadors, whose role is to teach students about the basics of Wikipedia and to support them with their first edits. We are now at a point to make these investments pay off.

The Global Education Program and the year ahead

Beginning in 2011, we will expand Wikipedia editing in university classrooms to institutions around the world. That’s what we call the “Global Education Program”. It will support the Wikimedia Foundation’s strategic goal to grow, strengthen, and increase the Wikipedia editor community. It will also improve Wikipedia’s quality and increase Wikipedia’s credibility within academia.

Our priorities for expansion in year one will be India and Brazil, and we will also start activities in a couple of other countries. Whereas the Public Policy Initiative had a narrow topical focus, the new Global Education Program will encourage teachers from all disciplines to engage their students in Wikipedia editing.

What are the big challenges we are going to tackle in year one?

  • Scalability. Based on the current growth, we are planning to have more than 10,000 students enrolled in our program by 2013. That means that we will need a much larger number of Wikipedia Campus and Online Ambassadors to support teachers and students. Therefore, we are planning to move the Ambassador training online and explore new models of letting volunteers take ownership of the program.
  • Standards and guidelines. For a global volunteer-driven program like ours, it will be important that all participants have a shared understanding of what the goals are and how we are planning to achieve these goals. That’s where standards and guidelines come into play. The education systems and the culture of education varies from country to country, and we aim at being as flexible as possible in the implementation of our model. At the same time, we need to make sure that the quality of our support for teachers and students meets the same standards globally.
  • Communication. At the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit last month, we have seen how powerful it can be when participants of our program share their experiences and learnings with each other. Our goal for the next year will be to give volunteers a stronger voice in storytelling and also to develop tools that enable participants to share their materials and best practices more effectively.

For me, the year ahead is the next step toward the vision that Andy Carvin outlined in 2005. Wikipedia belongs in Higher Education. And it’s not a matter of time anymore that students from around the world will work together to improve the quality of content on Wikipedia. The future of Wikipedia in Education is now.

Frank Schulenburg
Global Education Program Director