Why the student learning aspect matters in the Wikipedia Education Program

Editor’s note: The following is an op-ed, meaning the views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.

Jami Mathewson

I’ve been working with the Wikipedia Education Program in the United States and Canada for almost two years. In the program, university professors assign their students to edit Wikipedia as a part of the coursework. Typically, professors do away with a traditional research paper and instead train students to complete the same research and summarize it into a Wikipedia article.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of using Wikipedia in the classroom, your first thought may be that this is a great way to “legitimize” Wikipedia and bring “good writers and researchers” into the project as editors. I hear this all the time. But Wikipedia doesn’t need help being legitimized, which I explain to newcomers fairly often. And I find that students, for the most part, are not good writers and researchers; I think most professors would likely agree. In a more perfect world, our high school students would graduate with a solid understanding of academic scholarship, and of how to find it, reproduce it, and cite it. As of now, this is a skill many students don’t pick up until graduate school.

But in our world of information—where so much is accessible at the click of a button, in the palm of our hand, in an instant—these research skills are more important than ever. We need to teach our students how to read a news source, assess its origin, and analyze its reliability. We need to teach our students when they should take something with a grain of salt, even when—or especially when—it’s on the internet.

This is what the Wikipedia Education Program offers its participants every term. Student editors learn how to consume information by producing it. Rather than use Wikipedia solely as a reference point, they engage in a participatory assignment and learn the intricacies of knowledge dissemination. With 500 million people accessing Wikipedia every month, it is important to determine what they are accessing Who decides what is important enough to make it into an article? What scholarship is referenced, and what newspapers are cited?

We’ve already done two research projects and the results prove that student editors are not only capable of improving the quality of Wikipedia articles, they actually do so almost 9 out of 10 times. This isn’t shocking to me. The students are working toward getting a good grade; they have access to reliable sources through their university libraries; and their professors can identify gaps in the scholarship on Wikipedia through their own expertise, even if they don’t take the time to edit themselves.

While we’ve shown that these contributions to Wikipedia articles are significant, I don’t think that is the only reason the Wikipedia Education Program has the potential to be so world-changing. The ideal outcome I see for the program is this: Student editors have a positive learning experience and, in the meantime, they improve the quality of Wikipedia. Perhaps the student editor makes a minor textual contribution but improves her understanding of how to cite research from a peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps the entire class edits “only” two articles, but they achieve Good Article status and learn about information literacy and critical thinking. Or maybe a student editor significantly edits just one article, learning how to evaluate and expand a topic’s coverage, and that improved article on, for example, infant mortality reaches at least 20,000 viewers every month.

Famously, Jimmy Wales asked us to “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” I believe that the sum of all human knowledge is not limited to a compilation of events, biographies, theories, etc. Isn’t information literacy a part of that knowledge? What about writing skills and research skills? The ability to work collaboratively, to compromise, to remain open-minded to changing your opinion as you widen your perspective? I believe our community of editors is learning these skills, and it’s important to share this with as much of the world as possible.

The quantitative and qualitative impacts to Wikipedia are not the only impacts when a student edits Wikipedia. I hope we can establish some reliable, realistic metrics to assess the student learning outcomes within the program, so we can evaluate our efficacy through this lens. I look forward to seeing the use of Wikipedia in the classroom grow to give even more people the opportunity to gain so much from editing Wikipedia.

Jami Mathewson
Wikipedia Education Program, United States and Canada

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5 Comments on Why the student learning aspect matters in the Wikipedia Education Program

Lane Rasberry 2 years

Jami is spot-on about saying that participants in the program get “information literacy and critical thinking”.

As an “ambassador” for the program (this is the title used by people who help classes participate), I have visited a lot of classes in the United States at the graduate school level or equivalent for professional tracks (like medicine and law) and met a lot of really bright people with advanced qualifications who did not have the base Wikipedians’ intuition about what constitutes a reliable source or even that assertions ought to be sourced. It is entirely possible to get advanced degrees and not understand the concept of “verifiability”, which Wikipedians know so well.

Even short participation in development of a Wikipedia article knocks a deep understanding of checking sources into participants’s minds in a way that I have seen people to report is perspective changing. There is not really any way to measure this except by asking participants what they thought of the program, but I confirm that I have seen people come to a fast realization that they are perpetually bombarded with unsourced claims and the review process on Wikipedia is a real check that can be applied in many other parts of life.

Jami Mathewson 2 years

Hi, Samir! Thanks for the great question (and the great work in the Arab World).

In the US and Canada, our goal has never been to retain student editors when the assignment is over. We’ve never explicitly aimed to retain students outside of any organic editor retention, though of course some student editors end up sticking around after their exposure during the program.

Instead, we aim to retain professors. We try to support professors during the semester and help them improve their assignment and student experience so that they will want to come back semester ever semester. That way, they consistently bring 10-30+ new editors who will contribute to Wikipedia.

Hope that answers your question!

Samir El-Sharbaty 2 years

It was really a great article Jami, being a campus ambassador and a faculty leader for the Wikipedia Education Program in the Arab World I was comparing your description to what I see in our program in Egypt and other students and professors I talked to in Jordan. The views of professors and students are much similar to what you’ve summarized in your article. I can tell you that unfortunately a great number of program students here do not continue editing Wikipedia outside the program when a semester ends, what about your students? Do they all continue editing Wikipedia outside the program?

Madison 2 years

Great article Jami. I think this was a good summary of the purpose of the Wikipedia Education Program for me and others who weren’t quite sure what it did. Thanks for changing the world!

kanumuri karthim 2 years

I am really impressed of wikipedia from day one.i want to be part of the wikipedia team contribute something to society and learn from new experienced and works..plz let me knw if there is sny possibility..

thank u!!!

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