Students at universities in the United States and Canada found that contributing to Wikipedia as a class assignment through the Wikipedia Education Program improved their media literacy and technology skills, according to survey results from the fall 2011 term. In the Wikipedia Education Program, professors assign students to contribute to Wikipedia, usually in the form of expanding a stub article, in place of a traditional research paper grade. At the end of the fall 2011 term, we asked students who participated in the U.S. and Canada program to fill out a survey on their experiences. A total of 132 students took the survey, with a little over three-quarters of the respondents from the United States. About 61 percent of the respondents were enrolled in undergraduate courses, while the remainder were enrolled in graduate courses.

Learning outcomes

A series of questions were designed around assessing student learning outcomes. About two-thirds of the respondents agreed that doing a Wikipedia assignment was a beneficial experience, with almost 20 percent of them strongly in favor of a Wikipedia assignment in place of a traditional term paper. Students from the United States and graduate students all reported higher beliefs in the benefits of a Wikipedia assignment. More than half of the respondents felt that doing a Wikipedia assignment improved (1) their ability to identify poor quality Wikipedia articles and (2) their ability to identify bias in documents. In addition, more than half the respondents felt their ability to write a neutral (i.e., balanced point-­of-­view) document improved through a Wikipedia assignment more than through a standard term paper.

These findings indicate that students recognize the media literacy benefits in doing a Wikipedia assignment. As professors have noted, when Wikipedia is not the destination of the student’s research on a topic, but is instead the road, students are forced out of their research comfort zone. Students are required to evaluate the reliability of sources, find journal articles, and write from a neutral point of view to meet Wikipedia’s policy requirements.

Support resources

Student participants use a set of resources when they have questions about editing Wikipedia — online text, Campus Ambassadors, Online Ambassadors, and professors to name a few. Online text is the most commonly used resource, followed by printed materials. Nearly 93 percent of students who consulted their Campus Ambassador found him or her to be helpful, and 74 percent of students who consulted an Online Ambassador said he or she was helpful.

We’ve found that having that support makes a big difference to students. Students can chat with their Campus Ambassadors in person on campus or on wiki, and they can interact with Online Ambassadors on-wiki and through an IRC chatroom where they can get immediate help for quick questions.

Students had a positive interaction with the Wikipedia community of editors when they interacted with them. Students were asked to pick two adjectives to describe their views of the Wikipedia editing community; top responses included “helpful” (72 percent), “collaborative” (39 percent), and “intelligent” (27 percent).

Motivations

We asked students to identify the key motivations for their contributions to Wikipedia. Important factors students reported were getting a grade, interest in their Wikipedia article topic, and the usefulness of their work (i.e., it wasn’t another throwaway assignment). Graduate students reported a broader variety of motivations, when compared to undergraduates. In particular, more than 60 percent of the graduate students gave a high ranking to the fact that their work contributes to a freely accessible knowledge base.

Final comments and looking ahead

Although converting students into longterm editors is not an explicit goal of the Wikipedia Education Program, as many as 46 percent of our respondents expressed interest in continuing to edit Wikipedia.

When students were asked to share the hardest thing about their Wikipedia editing experience, some common themes emerged. Many students mentioned the challenges of learning how Wikipedia works, and how editing an article was a lot more work than they imagined. Almost universally, they talked about how hard it was to learn wiki syntax. The Visual Editor will help alleviate many of these concerns.

To sum up, here’s what one student had to say when asked about any memorable experiences:

“Overall, a great learning experience. Having to really validate anything you say by backing it with a reputable source is incredibly beneficial and students should be exposed to this, especially if they have not had a research methods course in their undergraduate career.”

Ayush Khanna
Data Analyst, Global Development