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Wikipedia, we need ya

August is about teaching and learning – designing courses, TAing, all things pedagogic – with Orientation and other events thrown in as they come up. (These will be September’s focus more squarely).

Apropos of designing three new courses this year, I’ve been thinking about this…

We’re all aware that a lot of popular teaching methods don’t work

The most common is what Dustin calls “the straight didactic,” which is a.) miserable for students and b.) the research shows that it’s no good.

A meta analysis of the superiority of active learning in STEM: Freeman S, Eddy SL, Mcdonough M, et al. 2014. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.
Reflections on the necessity of active learning in the humanities from an award-winning teacher: Farman, Jason. 2013. “A Manifesto for Active Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-manifesto-for-active-learning/52705

There are, however, a lot of innovative strategies that are integrating technologies that we all know very well.

For example, what is the place that you go to first when you want to learn the basics about a topic? That’s right folks, Wikipedia. Everybody goes to Wikipedia (titular pun courtesy of Dustin). One method that people have been successfully using Wikipedia for to help their students in self-directed learning is having students create Wikipedia content based on predetermined topics or stubs/”start class” articles identified by the instructor and/or other active Wikipedians. Though for many reasons the relationship between Wikipedia and education is contentious (I hope we can have a discussion about this in comments below), this method of learning can improve upon straight didactic learning in almost countless ways.wikipedia-meme


Here are a few:

  • Students collaborate with each other and with others from different locations and with different motivations – often they are subject area experts – editing at the same time. They have to respond to criticism and feedback in real time or watch their edits get reverted. If this isn’t a way to learn not to take your own ideas too personally, I don’t know what is.
  • Students have to identify a representative selection of established opinions and survey them with a neutral point of view. This is a way to get a sense of a field and to see where bias is in their own thinking and, sometimes more surprisingly, in their sources. They have to think carefully about the reliability and verifiability of claims and sources.
  • Overall, this is what educators call “authentic” learning – it’s something that’s relevant and true to students’ everyday life experiences. It’s also, in fact, a form of service learning. They’re contributing to a real cultural resource that others use. By some estimates, at least, Wikipedia is viewed 8000 times a second.
  • And many more

I know how you’re feeling right now. You think this sounds great (or you’re profoundly skeptical – whichever) but it seems like an overwhelming task to figure it all out. Dr. Shar here to save the day (Jeremy says my new moniker sounds like a Bond villain, and I’m embracing that fully). I’ve gone through and done all of the leg work to figure out how to get yourself started and I’m going to enumerate those in simple sequential steps right here right now. (Ironic that my song link takes you outside of this website entirely)

  • Make an account
  • Complete Wikipedia training for educators (~1 hour)
  • Fill out the form at the WikiEdu project to get your course assignment supported by WikiEd experts
  • Play “The Wikipedia Adventure” a fantastic supplementary tutorial that will get you much more comfortable with the basic rhythms of editing (going between talk pages and content edits, how to make a variety of markups)
  • Decide on assessment – whatever you do, don’t reward writing volume; reward students for upholding the aims of an encyclopedia like this one. Think about how to find evidence of collaboration (responding to and playing well with other editors in and outside of your classroom), good referencing, content expansion, copyediting, etc. If you’re using groups, make sure you have some way of having students agree on their roles and expectations beforehand and something that accounts for group dynamics so students perceive the assessment to be fair if some group members didn’t adhere to those expectations. Here’s a great resource for this from Carnegie Mellon.every-time-i-go-to-wikipedia
  • Curate a selection of “start class” articles or article stubs by finding the relevant “portal” for your field and then clicking on “things to do.”


In the process of figuring this out, I’ve discovered that the (indisputably excellent) CTL is by and large unfamiliar with the premise of Wiki assignments, and currently Queen’s has no Wikipedia “Campus Ambassador” (though the training is very doable – similar to the Wikipedia training module for educators). But as more instructors work with this resource we will be able to have better conversations within our programs and departments to make our teaching more and more effective. This is a plea more for that, for a campus culture of critical pedagogy, than for any particular assignment type, so long as it’s evidence-based practice.

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3 comments on “Wikipedia, we need ya
  1. Colette says:

    So I never thought of using Wikipedia this way except for finding out facts that they had gathered. My only comment would be how truthful are the excerpts within Wikipedia and as students can you use them as a reference?

  2. Sharday says:

    Using Wikipedia as a reference is still not considered appropriate for scholarly work, and that’s to be expected, because encyclopedias are not scholarly materials and reference materials (like dictionaries, too) aren’t usually cited when they’re consulted anyway. This isn’t about treating Wikipedia as a researcher as anything other than the tertiary reference that it is – that is, a starting point for research. Instead, it’s about the process of contributing high quality academic information to Wikipedia as an authentic learning activity. Part of that, in fact, is cleaning up citations on Wikipedia. “Truthfulness” for a source like this is primarily a function of: is the information cited from a reliable published secondary source? Students need to learn why they can trust a fact taken from a peer-reviewed journal (and what bias might still be present) and why the publishing model of peer-review means something different from the publishing model of a newspaper.

  3. Jeremy Walsh says:

    This is a very intriguing idea with a TON of application in the classroom (as you have detailed). I’m very much on board with using Wikipedia as a learning aid. In a lot of cases, it serves as the place where a student can solidify the ‘ideas’ (based on Sue’s ICE model) component of their learning and/or clear up points that are still muddy. When time permits, I’ll take you up on your challenge (with ‘right here, right now’ playing in the background).

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