From My Dirty Little Secret to My Favorite Tool for E-Pedagogy: How One University Professor Learned to Love Wikipedia

Jonathan Obar

Professor Jonathan Obar

I was never a fan of Wikipedia. In fact, I was quite skeptical when I first heard about the Wikipedia Global Education Program. How things have changed.

About a year ago, I remember hearing that some folks from the Wikimedia Foundation were planning to visit our College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University to try to recruit faculty for the Wikipedia Education Program. I remember walking to the meeting thinking, hmm, well I guess as a professor in a communication school it’ll be cool to meet some people who work for a major social media site. I’m not a fan of Wikipedia though, I don’t trust it… (puff up chest here) I’m an academic after all; my work is well-researched, credible, trustworthy, not like that amateurish stuff on Wikipedia. Just let me find one of my students citing Wikipedia in a paper so that I can write on their submission in big, red letters YOU DO NOT CITE WIKIPEDIA IN MY CLASS.

The dirty little secret of course was that I was using Wikipedia all the time. Whenever I would begin a research project I would type a concept into Google and of course a Wikipedia article would come up. I’d take a quick look, check out the references, begin to map the concept in my mind, all the while feeling unsure that I could trust what I was reading. I did this all the time. As an academic, this was my dirty little secret.

One year later and how things have changed. I am now a Wikipedia Teaching Fellow as well as a volunteer member of the Wikipedia Education Program’s outreach team helping to connect universities in Canada to the initiative, determined to change the minds of skeptics all over the world who see Wikipedia as I once did.

So what’s changed? Look, I’ve used Facebook in the classroom, I’ve used Twitter. I’ve used closed wikis, blogs and other new media technologies and I am convinced (and I don’t think I’m overstating things here) that Wikipedia is among the most innovative tools for e-pedagogy and e-learning currently available.

This “Wikipedia in the classroom” project begins where most “traditional” research assignments leave off. Students are still researching topics related to course content, they’re still synthesizing sources, they’re still writing; that’s where most “traditional” research projects leave off. What the Wikipedia project then adds is new media literacy development. Students learn the technical and social skills needed to work with wiki-technology, they’re pushed to collaborate and engage with Wikipedia’s social network, they are thrust into a thriving open-source movement, and they are exposed to a growing and increasingly relevant wiki-culture. Students experience all of this, while simultaneously learning course content.

That’s just the beginning.

As I teach my students about new media literacy, I often refer to new perspectives that I’ve been exposed to while working with the Wikimedia Foundation. Lessons about what it means to understand the nature of the evolving information source, how knowledge is generated through debate (some would go so far as to say that we’re working with a dialectic process here… perhaps an overstatement) and most importantly, how it is essential the we be critical of our information sources, no matter what they are or where we find them. You are not safe anywhere when it comes to information sources. There is bias everywhere. There are mistakes everywhere. No information source is the source. Research widely and research often. Be an informed consumer of information.

Wikipedia is so many things. It’s an encyclopedia, it’s a social network, and it’s also an idea. When I first began using Wikipedia in the classroom as a tool for innovative e-pedagogy, I quickly realized that not only was I teaching students new media literacy, not only would I be providing them with a unique opportunity to collaborate online and receive feedback from a multitude of individuals, forcing them to reflect on their work from a variety of perspectives. Not only would students be leaving something behind, contributing to the amount of information available online about their area of interest – have you heard about the Georgetown student’s Wikipedia article – National Democratic Party (Egypt) – that’s received more than 100,000 hits since the “paper” was turned in? Not bad for a term paper that would in years past end up in the file cabinet or the garbage, seemingly lost forever. When we introduce Wikipedia into the classroom as a teaching tool, not only do our students enjoy these benefits, we provide them with a space to reflect and learn about the nature of knowledge, how it is created, built, shaped, learned, and how it evolves. Taken a step further, perhaps we are also providing them with a place to question the normative ideals of participatory, direct democracy, and how our information sources contribute to our societal system of knowledge.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What is this Wikipedia project anyways? How does it work? Well, for more information, have a look at the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikipedia Global Education Program outreach page. To put it simply, professors replace “traditional” writing assignments with the Wikipedia assignment, requiring students to research and write material that then gets placed in Wikipedia articles. At the same time that students conduct research and edit Wikipedia (learning the social and technical components of the site), students also learn about wiki-culture as they connect to Wikipedia’s social network. This all happens while professors simultaneously teach course content. It’s two-courses in one in many respects.

Clearly I’m gushing, clearly my views have changed, and for good reason. As an educator I’m being given a tremendous opportunity to offer my students something relevant, cutting-edge, intellectually challenging and fun. Oh and by the way, did I mention that it’s free?

Come check out what the Wikimedia Foundation has put together, I promise that you’ll never feel dirty about your Wikipedia use again.

-Jonathan Obar
Michigan State University

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6 Comments on From My Dirty Little Secret to My Favorite Tool for E-Pedagogy: How One University Professor Learned to Love Wikipedia

Jose Melendez 3 years

Speak English!

Dr.Sukalpa Chakrabarti 3 years

What a succinct way to sum up the thoughts crossing the minds of us professors experimenting with bringing the WIKI into the classroom.I have myself used the WIKI as an assignment tool for my students last semester and have enjoyed the learning experience thoroughly.
I have realized that through WIKI you are not just creating a knowledge base , but also enriching it through a wide and diverse outreach and most importantly igniting minds to debate the existing notions so that knowledge does not become dogmatic/static—- and that in my opinion is the very essence of education.

bobsoper (@bobsoper) 3 years

What a valuable resource; I am very grateful that Wikipedia exists. It is a wonderful starting point for learning about nearly anything from calculus to piano repair. And it’s FREE, with NO ADS! This is the internet at its best, people.

Cindy Allen 3 years

Hi Jonathan, I met you at the Wikipedia Higher Education Summit in Boston last summer, and I have just read your blog post about being a WP Fellow and using WP in the classroom. You have put into writing so eloquently what I need to tell my fellow teachers. I was a Fellow last semester, and thoroughly enjoyed the project.

It’s great to know you are still supporting “the cause!!”

Pete King 3 years

Wikipedia is like any reference book, it is not the only one to look in, but it is a good place to start, but just like any reference book, lazy learners will look no further, and so the trick is to have Wikipedia as the seed of a search, may the end of a search, but not the whole search.

Also some of Wikipedia is written such that you need a lot of life and knowledge under the belt to be able to make head or tail of some of it, so there are times when I put down Wikipedia and use that wonderful resource called the college/public library and even my peer group water cooler chat.

Daniel Carter 3 years

Cool. If only my teachers believed in Wikipedia as much as you do…

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