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04. Teaching with Wikipedia: the Why, What, and How

04. 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.

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?


Visual literacy

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.


Critical thinking


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.]



Thanks for sharing these ideas here, Adrianne! I appreciate your leadership, encouragement and feminist perspective. It's also great that there is a growing body of resources and analysis of effective pedagogies we can draw on to support this work. It would be fun to figure out more ways to encourage collaboration across/outside of classrooms as students and professors deepen understanding of Wikipedia and contribute toward its improvement. 


What do you have in mind? There have been some projects bringing students and cultural institutions together, which is a good first step in my opinion. There have also been some projects to have multiple classes work together across institutions - I would like to see more of this with a global focus. 


Would it be ok for me to translate and publish (with attribution, obviously) this post in the blog? We arecurrently trying to reach higher education institutions and there's a lot of convincing to do to help teachers see the value of using Wikipedia as a teaching+learning tool. This post makes very good, clear points on what Wikipedia currently is, and opens the debate (in our case, in Ecuador) for the need of generation of contents that are conceived locally.


Please do! Thanks!


Hi Adrianne:

Nice work! I really enjoyed the stats you placed at the top of the article about male over-dependence and the control of knowledge by a small (handful, really) group of editors.

Is this a place where I could invite people to join the teaching with Wikipedia listserv?


Bob Cummings


I assume you mean the education listserv at the WMF? By all means! There are so many resources! Always one of my mantras.


Great posting Adrianne,

In the spirit of converting your good advice into direct action, there is still time for London based readers to join a editathon at the Wellcome Trust this Wednesday (26th February 2014).  I am attending on behalf of MarineLives - I have invited my student daughter (Biomedicine, University College, London) and her friends.

Below is today's reminder message from Phoebe Harkins of the Wellcome Trust:

Hello everyone!

Hope you’re still coming along to tomorrow’s edit-a-thon here at the Wellcome Trust.
Just to clarify, we will be in the Wellcome Trust HQ, which is the known as the Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, not in the Wellcome Collection/Library.
The Gibbs Building is the glass building next door to Wellcome Collection.
How to find us: and travel info:

When you come in, I’ll be at reception to meet you. We’re due to start at 11.00, but feel free to pop in from 10.45.

The edit-a-thon is scheduled to run from 11.00-16.00 with a lunch break at 1. We will supply a sandwich lunch: I think we have all of your dietary requirements covered!

Remember to bring your laptops with you, and power cables if you think your battery might not last.

We will be using the Wellcome Trust wifi tomorrow, so you can log in to wellcomeguest  when you arrive.

Just a couple of things before tomorrow:

Creating a user account before the edit-a-thon:
There’s only one thing you need to do in advance of the edit-a-thon, and that’s to create a user account. Use the link at the top right of any Wikipedia page.
Unlike some sites, Wikipedia doesn’t ask for lots of personal information; only an email address. It's up to you if you use your real name or a pseudonym.
Note that this is a personal log-in: it's recommended not to include your employer name.

Martin Poulter will be running our session, and he’s suggested a couple of short videos to check out before the event:

Wikipedia: beneath the surface:

The state of Wikipedia:

And if you want some background reading, "Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia" is short, to-the-point and very helpful.

I think that covers everything: if you’ve got any questions at all, just drop me an email or text/call

07739 19490707739 194907.

See you tomorrow!

Phoebe Harkins

Communications Co-ordinator

Wellcome Library


I have taught with Wikipedia with limited success in my classes.  The problem was my inability to design an effective assignment because the learning curve to be a Wikipedia editor is fairly steep and I have not been able to develop an effective way to teach students to be editors.  Besides the resources available through WIkipedia, do you have any suggestions?

Although I believe that learning how to edit Wikipedia is important and I have learned much as a Wikipedia editor, I had not considered some of the types of analysis you mention (e.g. visual literacy) and I appreciate the insight you have given to me. 

Next week, my classes will start new projects for which they will turn to Wikipedia to begin their initial research; something that I encourage.  As we begin these assignments, I plan to assign your blog entry and ask students to analyze at least one of the Wikipedia pages they consult. 


You are right that there is a learning curve. I would suggest having small, incremental assignments in which students learn how to edit in stages. For example, this is part of a sequence I have used successfully in the past. (If you would like the assignment sheets, let me know and I will share them with you.)

  • 1: Create a Wikipedia account, play in the public sandbox, create a userpage on the Simple English Wikipedia, sign up on the list of students on the course page, and read Five pillars.
  • 2: Practice editing and communicating on Wikipedia, introduce yourself to one of the class's Ambassadors and leave a message for a classmate on their talk pages.
  • 3: Copyedit X article. Leave a comment on one of the articles your fellow classmates are working on, suggesting improvements.
  • 4: Research the topic of your article and create a bibliography of at least 10 scholarly peer-reviewed books and articles that could potentially be used as sources for your article. Place this list of sources on the talk page of the article, alerting the editing community there that you plan on improving the article.
  • 5: Post an outline of your planned revisions to the article to the talk page.

I'm really curious to hear how your class goes next week - please let me know! And let me know if I can be of any help at all.