Tina Loo, a history professor at the University of British Columbia, recently incorporated Wikipedia in her North American environmental history class (HIST 396), the first history class in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Canada Education Program, which promotes editing and improving Wikipedia articles as part of educational curricula. The 60 students in her class worked in teams to expand existing Wikipedia articles and start new ones. In total, they worked on thirteen articles, all based on subjects in Canadian environmental history.
Though Loo said that she was “attracted by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ philosophy of making knowledge accessible (at least to those who have an internet connection),” she had a more personal reason to participate in the program.
For the past two years, a pile of unclaimed HIST 396 term papers has accumulated in the corner of my office, evidence of my failure to engage students adequately. It was as if the energy and anxiety that went into these fifteen- to eighteen-page tomes dissipated completely when they were handed in. The authors of these abandoned papers didn’t, it seems, care how their ideas and arguments resonated with their audience: me. Increasingly, it seemed ridiculous to have students spend time doing something they weren’t interested in and for me to spend time doing something they weren’t interested in, namely writing comments.
As part of the Wikipedia Education Program, Loo took advantage of the resources developed and provided by the Foundation. She also availed herself of several Campus Ambassadors who were graduate students at UBC. They volunteered to help her as she taught her students how to edit Wikipedia and how to navigate the principles and practices that guide the Wikipedia community of editors. In addition, three Online Ambassadors – “The Interior,” “Wetman,” and “maclean” – assisted Loo from a distance, a fact that struck her as remarkable.
They’re members of the Wikipedia community, expert editors who volunteered to help my students and me with writing articles because they just happened to be interested in the subject matter. Beyond their handles and what each said about themselves on their Wikipedia “Talk” pages, I have no idea who they are. Their names materialized on my Wikipedia assignment syllabus within hours of me putting it up.
For Loo’s students, the experience was novel, and it compelled them to consider that the product of their studies would be seen by more than just their teacher, or their parents.
The public nature of Wikipedia, and the fact students felt they were contributing to something that would live on after the class was over made the task of writing an entry exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. The self-consciousness that came from writing something that wasn’t just for me, a TA, or, at most, the other students in the class, translated into a level of care about both the form and content of their writing that I don’t always see.
The students soon discovered that it wasn’t just the prospect that their “term papers” would be read by thousands or tens of thousands of people around the world, but they would also scrutinized by Wikipedians, who are exacting in their standards.
When Wikipedians like these took issue with what they wrote, the students couldn’t just be self-conscious: they also had to respond. Learning how to explain why they had written what they had, to defend it respectfully, and to modify it in light of valid criticism was incredibly valuable. I was impressed with how the students stood up for themselves, especially given that not all community members abided by the first rule of Wikipedia: “Don’t bite the newbies!”
Though Loo detailed some of the less civil comments, she also found a number of Wikipedia editors came to the defense of her students and encouraged them to improve their work. She said that it would be impossible to replicate the kinds and degree of questions that her students received from Wikipedia editors, giving them a remarkable experience with peer review. It also gave them a better insight into how knowledge is developed.
In the end, the value of the Wikipedia assignment lies in giving students first hand experience in constructing knowledge. Writing the articles showed them how it’s made; that it changes over time, and it does so in part as a result of competition and cooperation. Knowledge is a compromise, willing and grudging. It’s the outcome of exercising power and it is powerful.
Tina Loo is a History Professor at the University of British Columbia. Read the extended account of her experience on Niche. Readers interested in the particulars of Loo’s class can find more information at the Wikipedia assignment syllabus for HIST 396.