Teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

This week I crossed the threshold in which summer no longer seems to stretch out endlessly before me and I start to think about updating my fall classes. I’ll be teaching two, a graduate seminar on the Sociology of Environmental Health, and an upper-division undergraduate class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Last year was my first time teaching the latter class. I have a few tweaks in mind for the readings compared to last year’s syllabus, and I intend to once again center the class project around teaching students how to contribute new content to Wikipedia.

I was pleased with how the Wikipedia assignment worked out last year. The good people at Wiki Education helped me set it up before the class began by walking me through the various assignment modules they have available for instructors to adapt to their own purposes. Some are short assignments that teach students how to add images or citations to existing articles. I chose the most extensive model, in which students spend the entire semester learning how to, 1) evaluate existing Wikipedia content, 2) identify areas that need improvement, 3) read the existing scholarly literature on their chosen topic, 4) summarize that scholarship on Wikipedia, and, 5) respond to other Wikipedia contributors who may alter, delete, or add to their work. These are all transferable skills for traditional academic research, as well as for critical thinking, writing and collaborative work in general.

The assignment also gave us an opportunity to discuss the social construction and politics of knowledge. Wikipedia contributors skew heavily white and male, and this impacts the kinds of content available on the site (articles on military history and video games are apparently particularly well-developed). This leaves a number of topics wide open for student contribution. Accordingly, one of my students created an article on Black Land Loss in the United States. Others added content to existing articles: one student added a description of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that Fannie Lou Hamer organized as part of her civil rights work; another added content on the challenges faced by female farmworkers to the Agriculture in the United States article. Another researched labor conditions on organic farms to add to the article on Organic Food, though her content was ultimately never added to Wikipedia.

This assignment generated more student interest in assessing the credibility of what they read and supporting their own work with strong citations than I have seen in other assignments. Some of this is likely due to the fact that real people all around the world will read their work. Indeed, Wikipedia has become a massive online encyclopedia with global reach. The dashboard available to instructors tracks how many “views” there are of the articles that students create or edit. Less than one year later, the articles to which my students contributed have been viewed 661,000 times (actually, I suspect the number is higher – students sometimes added their contributions without remembering to sign in to their user profile first).

While the Wikipedia protocols for adding content and interacting with other users are a bit cumbersome to learn, I was impressed by how much support Wiki Education offers. Beyond the adaptable assignment modules and training videos they have created, they also assigned my class two staff helpers. The helpers were on hand throughout the semester to answer my questions and to interact directly with my students, they even provided direct feedback on their writing.

This semester I’ll make an effort to streamline my assignment somewhat, which ended up confusing myself and the students with a few too many due dates for editing and revising. Beyond that, I plan to stick with last year’s winning formula. If you teach with Wikipedia, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. And if you teach Food and Agriculture, send your students over to my students’ work to continue to improve upon it.


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