Teaching with Wikipedia: the Why, What, and How
WHY should you teach with Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit but not everyone does. You and your students can dramatically affect the most popular and important reference work in the world.
There are only 3,000 very active Wikipedians on the English Wikipedia. 3,000 people are controlling the world’s knowledge. That’s the size of a small town.
Wikipedia is the most popular reference work in the world.
If you want your students to learn about how a small community is influenced by demographics and how they can change that community by participating in it, Wikipedia is the place to go.
Google takes information from Wikipedia, as do many other sites, because it is licensed through a Creative Commons Share-Alike license. Those little boxes on the left-hand side of your screen when you do a Google search? From Wikipedia. The information that is on Wikipedia spreads across the internet. What is right or wrong or missing on Wikipedia affects the entire internet.
WHAT can you teach with Wikipedia?
While our students live in a visual world, they do not naturally understand those images, just like they do not naturally understand the depths of a novel. Analyzing what images have been chosen to represent a particular topic on Wikipedia and what those choices signify politically and socially allows our students to acquire skills essential for any digital citizen. For example, the composite image that appears at the top of the "Los Angeles" article on Wikipedia, represents Los Angeles as a series of places associated with wealth - corporate downtown, Santa Monica beach, Hollywood, and the Griffith Observatory. More importantly, there are no people in this image. This representation of Los Angeles does not signify the mix of cultures and languages present in the city, a problem reflected throughout Wikipedia’s treatment of articles relating to the city.
As professors, we strive to teach our students to be critical thinkers and to evaluate the information they are presented with. We urge them to analyze and to assess. Wikipedia assignments should make students aware of the problems inherent in all sources. Students start by analyzing Wikipedia articles - their sources, structure, and language. While Wikipedia articles are rarely wrong (most studies have shown that Wikipedia has the same error rate as Britannica and other professional encyclopedias), Wikipedia is incomplete and it is in its omissions that it becomes seriously problematic. For example, the article “History of Los Angeles” is incomplete, to say the least. I will not detail all of the problems with this article, but call out some of the more obvious. For example, the “Ethnicity” section (a debatable word in and of itself) separates out the histories of minority groups rather than integrate them into the history of the city. The section itself is divided into only three groups; sub-sections such as “Latinos” do not recognize that Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and other groups have a separate history and separate political interests. There are no quotes or pictures from these groups, rendering them voiceless and faceless. Finally, in the section on African-Americans, for example, the history begins in 1900, as if there were no African-Americans in Los Angeles before that time. Leading students to ask these types of questions about one source will show them the fallibility of many sources and turn them into more critical thinkers. In fact, one of the best results of these assignments is that students become more skeptical of all the sources they read.
Construction of knowledge and instability of knowledge
Showing students how knowledge is constructed as a result of the bias of Wikipedia’s editor base, as in the “History of Los Angeles” article, shows them how knowledge is not a stable construct. For example, Wikipedia’s main page consistently shows more facts about white males, while women are usually shown only if they are dead or sexualized and people of color are usually shown only in stories of violence. “Facts” are not permanent on Wikipedia. For example, when Chelsea Manning released her press release asking to be referred to as “Chelsea Manning” and “she” in the future, Wikipedians had a debate about what to call the article and what pronouns to use. The debate revealed the transphobia in current culture and the shifting of the article back and forth between “Bradley Manning” and “Chelsea Manning” reveals the instability of “knowledge”, what counts as "knowledge", and the need to cosntantly re-evaluate what one “knows”.
Research and writing skills
Adding content to Wikipedia allows students to work on many of the traditional skills we teach in the humanities, such as research and writing skills. In particular, students must learn to search databases of peer-reviewed research, do a literature review, summarize scholarship, and write collaboratively. These are not new skills, but the environment is public and allows students to have contact with real readers. This motivates them because they feel responsible to others like themselves who will be using the information.
HOW can you teach with Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia (a ‘pedia) and a community (a wiki) - and you can take advantage of both of these in your assignments, but it is worth thinking about this split carefully. Wikipedia is not just a collection of encyclopedia articles - it is a collection of community-authored articles. And an intense and dedicated volunteer community works on those articles every day.
To learn more about resources, students can create bibliographies and put them on article discussion pages or add citations to articles that are missing references. To learn more about writing and research, students can investigate a topic, research it, and add content to an article. To understand how the community works, students can evaluate the articles for deletion process or review an article. All of these assignments have been done successfully in classes large and small and at all types of institutions. Assignments can last for a day, a week, a month, or a semester.
Know also that there is a Wikipedia Education Program that can assist you. They have knowledgeable Ambassadors who can help you design your assignment and provide technical support. There are lots of good materials about how to teach with Wikipedia. Many people have already faced the challenges you will face - seek them out and learn from them. The links below are just a starting place.
[Adapted from a talk given at Whittier College in Los Angeles, CA on February 13, 2014.]