Students regularly use Wikipedia, and so do teachers. Whether we’re looking for information related to a class project, seeking an illustration for a paper, or reading background material so we can better understand an assigned text, free knowledge shared digitally is now a major component of education. Because Wikipedia is such a ubiquitous and influential source of information for my students, I feel quite annoyed when I find gaps in coverage and participation.

Alverno College students use Wikipedia to share information about Milwaukee public art.

Missing information is what initially motivated me to become an editor. I wanted my students to be able to find information easily about public art, about the monuments and sculptures they walk past everyday on campus, in city parks and in their home towns. After writing a few short articles about sculptures I knew well, I realized that trying to fill the gaps myself would be a long, lonely process. Then I realized that my students could help.

Since 2008, I have used Wikipedia regularly in my courses. Working in collaboration with editors involved with WikiProject Public Art and WikiProject Lights Camera Wiki, my students and I have developed hundreds of Wikipedia articles about public artworks, and we’ve created and contributed more than 50 short videos through Wikimedia Commons to illustrate article content.

My deepening involvement with Wikipedia as a movement put me in touch with another gap: gender. Fortunately, my students also help with that. I’ve now introduced close to 100 students to editing Wikipedia, and all of them are women. (One of my students was even previously featured on this blog!)

My students are not typical Wikipedia editors–and not just because of their gender. Many are working women who have returned to school after starting families and careers. Many are graduates of under-funded public school districts that lag in access to digital technology. Many do not have their own computers and rely instead on smartphones and campus labs. While all are familiar with what Wikipedia is, none of them has prior experience editing it, and few have participated in online communities beyond Facebook.

Getting students started editing Wikipedia is easy, but keeping those students connected to the open knowledge movement as active contributors is more challenging. To participate consistently, students need motivation, opportunity and encouragement. For an initial editing experience, a class project provides the motivation of a focus and deadline, a computer lab offers the opportunity of access and the close-knit community of a classroom provides the structure and encouragement.

Alverno College, where I teach now, contributes a unique support in the form of its innovative ability-based curriculum. At Alverno, students work to develop eight core abilities, including the problem solving skills they need to navigate new technologies and the habits of effective citizenship they need to engage in the “good faith collaboration” that Wikipedia’s norms require. Beyond my classroom at Alverno, students receive support through initiatives like the Wikipedia Education Program, Campus Ambassadors, and the Wikipedia Teahouse.

A few of the women who learned to edit in my classes are barnstar rock stars and I like to think that many more are getting ready to shine. Today, I’m motivated to teach with Wikipedia because I want to learn how to better support women to share their expertise and build community around their intellectual interests. I’m grateful to the organizers of the WikiWomen’s Collaborative for bringing needed attention and resources to the vexing problem of gender inequity among editors. I’m optimistic that this effort will bring me in contact with models to inspire my students to continue editing and fill the gaps. Keeping women active as editors is one important way to create a more welcoming environment within the movement.

Jennifer Geigel Mikulay, Alverno College, Milwaukee