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Writing for Wikipedia

The traditional college assignment is seen by the instructor and nobody else. But having students contribute to Wikipedia gives them the pride of knowing that

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The traditional college assignment is seen by the instructor and nobody else. But having students contribute to Wikipedia gives them the pride of knowing that what they are creating will benefit others who use the information. For this reason I assign my upper-division courses to create a Wikipedia entry on a topic related to the class. It is a meaningful and authentic learning experience that transitions students from student to contributor, which is the next step in their lives beyond graduation.

Last year, my fourth-year cell biology class created a new Wikipedia entry on an important metabolic regulatory protein complex. One team did the introduction, one did the history, one described the structure and function and another team did the graphics. The graphics team was also responsible for the protein subunit tables and even used open-source software to construct a rotating three-dimensional model image with data from a structural database.

Structuring a Wikipedia assignment

Having run many Wikipedia writing assignments over the years, I am still in awe of the extensive support available to those teaching with Wikipedia. Since 2013 the nonprofit Wiki Education Organization (WikiEdu) has been dedicated to working Wikipedia into coursework. This gives instructors valuable teaching resources while simultaneously tapping college students and faculty to update and improve Wikipedia pages.

While creating a Wikipedia entry is rewarding, it is a lot of work, and there is a steep learning curve that WikiEdu helps instructors and students get through. In addition to learning the Wikipedia interface and Wikipedia design practice, instructors and students must also learn the writing style. Thus, the first place you should go to learn about teaching with Wikipedia is this site. After signing up, you will be directed to simple training videos and quizzes to learn about Wikipedia writing and teaching. The next step is to use the wizard to walk through setting up a writing assignment and timeline. This will automatically provide a draft timeline on your dashboard that you can modify to fit your assignment and syllabus. Your suggested timeline will include a series of assessed short video modules and quizzes that you choose depending on your subject matter. The most valuable elements cover topics such as writing style, how to use the text editor and citation editor, and plagiarism and copyright. Optional units cover things like writing on medical topics.

This dashboard system is much simpler and more intuitive than Moodle or Blackboard. (See this example.) You will also be assigned a Wikipedia expert who will answer questions, give advice, and help you troubleshoot. Mine will respond to our emails and problems at least as quickly as our campus IT department. It is fair to say that WikiEdu is simply the best and most extensive free online teaching support system available.

My exercises begin with having students set up their own usernames and accounts; complete a series of assessed training videos and exercises, such as writing in their sandboxes; add a citation to an article; and critique an existing article. These exercises are graded and done over several weeks. During this time, I encourage students to find flawed pages, outdated pages, or what Wikipedia calls stubs. Stubs are undeveloped pages that might be worth expanding or dropping. Students are then assigned to teams, and we do our best to let the teams pick the articles that they want to improve. My own style is not to assign strict word or citation counts. Instead we discuss as a class what needs to be done for each article and task a team with making those improvements. Improvements usually mean adding a section, updating a section, and always adding new citations and new graphics or media. I have found teamwork essential to generating high-enough quality work to post on Wikipedia. Potential team member roles are to add or fix article sections, act as researchers, and add graphics. Instructors should make sure each team has at least one competent writer who can either write the text or edit it before posting. As a rule, make sure everything posted has been approved by at least one peer reviewer. If the assignment is for individuals to post, then it is essential to build in assessed peer review with multiple opportunities to rewrite before posting. Last semester one of my teams posted prematurely to meet a deadline, but our Wikipedia expert quickly pulled the entry down and even provided them with detailed feedback! This is an example of how the level of support from WikiEdu is way beyond what most expect.

One of the greatest instructor concerns is privacy. Usernames and everything students do on Wikipedia is public, and students need to be reminded of this constantly. To put the risks in perspective, consider this activity like an internship where students are exposed to the public in schools, hospitals, or businesses but without the dangers of being on site. The risks and assessments need to be managed in the same way as these other experiential learning endeavors. Instructors need to set up a method outside of Wikipedia to give feedback privately while being careful that students’ real names are not revealed online. We also need to warn students about the trolls and to ignore them. I teach science and have only had one instance of page vandalism in six years. Other disciplines may be targeted more aggressively, but most traditional college-aged students have grown up aware of online provocations and how to handle them.

Writing for Wikipedia is a free, authentic learning activity that transforms students from consumers of knowledge to teachers of knowledge. This summer is the ideal time to learn about integrating a Wikipedia assignment into your course. Just get started soon!

Joel Parker, PhD, is an associate professor of biological sciences at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.


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