In most courses with some sort of research writing assignment, there’s a strongly worded prohibition against using Wikipedia. IT’S NOT A RELIABLE SOURCE! And measured by academic standards, it’s not. But faculty members Frances Di Lauro and Rebecca Johinke at the University of Sydney see these prohibitions as a wasted learning opportunity. “In bringing Wikipedia into the classroom, discussing its strengths and weaknesses, and subsequently what constitutes research and peer review, we engage students in a dialogue about academic writing as a process and
a product, while at the same time involving them in collaborative and participatory writing groups.” (p. 478)
Their well-referenced article describes various Wikipedia assignments used in an undergraduate writing course and a graduate course in magazines studies. It also contains a variety of information documenting that the Wikipedia of today is “a far more accurate storehouse of information than it was in its formative years. It now meets, if not surpasses, the accuracy of traditional specialist-built counterparts like Encyclopedia Britannica.” (p. 481) And that assertion is documented with research cited from Nature
and other credible academic sources.
is a truly unique source. It’s gargantuan. By 2013, if assembled as a set of physical books, it would have totaled 15,930 volumes. According to Wikipedia Report Card, during the month of June 2015, 374,819,00 discrete visitors consulted articles in Wikipedia and that didn’t include articles accessed by via mobile apps. “The ‘epitome of crowdsourcing,’ Wikipedia is a unique encyclopedia that is peer-produced by a variety of users including ‘frequent and occasional contributors. . .specialists and generalists’ and a range of interdisciplinary scholars.” (p. 479-480)
The authors point out how writing for Wikipedia gives students direct experience in knowledge production. In the undergraduate course, students edit, upgrade, and expand articles created other contributors. They also collaboratively create original material. One article on Slave Labor written by students in the course had been viewed 53,485 times when this article was published, obviously becoming a source of pride for the student authors.
The faculty members describe a variety of different assignments they’ve developed that use Wikipedia content. For example, they identify Wikipedia articles in need of repair and augmentation. They have students find and annotate more credible sources which they then add to the Wikipedia article. “This is an ideal way to teach students to evaluate information. . .” (p. 483)
Working with Wikipedia content adds a layer of authenticity to the assignments. Students are writing not just for the teacher but for a real audience, in this case a global one. “They write with universal accessibility in mind.” (p. 484) The instructors also noted that writing for this audience caused their students to be far more meticulous about the accuracy of their work. And the students received feedback on their work from multiple sources; their fellow group mates and classmates, their instructors, and Wikipedia editors. The authors recount an instance where a Wikipedia article had been tagged as having “multiple issues.” Students were assigned to work on the piece. In supplementary materials (links provided in the article), the changes made by students, including the addition of various sources are shown. As a result, the editors at Wikipedia removed the tag from the article.
There’s lots of details on the assignments used in both the undergraduate and graduate courses. The authors correctly note, “It is difficult to think of a discipline which would not be able to develop formative assessments at the very least involving Wikipedia article creation or editing. . . .” (p. 489) Faculty interested in other assignment possibilities are encouraged to visit Wikipedia Education Program
for options contributed by educators from various disciplines and around the globe.
Yes, the unsupervised student use of Wikipedia does raise concerns. However, as these authors illustrate, Wikipedia can be used to teach students a range of writing and research skills.
Reference: Di Lauro, F. and Johinke, B. (2016). Employing Wikipedia for good not evil: innovative approaches to collaborative writing assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education,
42 (3), 478-491.