Dr Martin Poulter recently began a 12-month period as Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Oxford, based at the Bodleian Libraries. His first project is with the Hill Forts Atlas project, creating visualisations from shared data, images and text. He contributes this guest post on the educational benefits of Wikipedia and encourages teaching staff at Oxford to explore those benefits for themselves.
Take a look at the Wikipedia article The Great Lover (novel). An obscure article by Wikipedia’s standards, it still gets around two thousand views by human beings each year. A related article, Biography in literature, gets ten times as many. Like a surprising amount of Wikipedia content, these were written by a student: in this case, Alex Stinson, an Oxford student (at the time) whose tutor had set him the topic of biographical fiction.
Stinson used his studies at Oxford to improve open knowledge. The more common student experience is of putting effort into something that almost disappears into a hole. When I was an undergraduate, each of my essays was written for an audience of one: my tutor. Doctoral research brought a 500% increase, as six people read different versions of my thesis. Now as a Wikipedian, I have written articles that collectively reach tens of thousands of readers per day.
Writing for a lay public, and for a site with policies on neutrality and proper sourcing, is a great opportunity for students, potentially very motivating so long as they are adequately prepared and supported. We all benefit:
- Students get an actual experience of publication: their article may well become the top Google hit and most-read online source about their topic. Their sources and wording may be challenged, and they may have to defend their choices in online discussion.
- Missing articles are created and poor articles are improved. Educational assignments are responsible for a lot of content in areas where Wikipedia is traditionally weak, such as politics or psychology. This helps the broader public, including prospective students, better inform themselves about the subject.
- Wikipedia has a ‘no original research’ rule: any factual statement is supposed to be backed up by citing a reputable source. Hence student assignments add a lot of links and citations to scholarly literature and databases, helping Wikipedia to bridge the worlds of informal discussion and formally vetted publication (Grathwohl, 2011).
Wikipedia assignments have become mainstream in universities in North America, where the Wiki Education Foundation (2016) reports that, since 2010, 22,000 students have contributed to Wikipedia for course credit, improving more than 37,000 articles. Wikipedia educational activities are run in dozens of other countries including in several universities here in the UK. The importance of these activities to Wikipedia’s mission has driven changes in the site’s software to help organise courses and support students.
Normally these assignments are given to final-year undergraduate or first-year postgraduates, who are ready to summarise research about a very specific topic. The most successful project of this kind targeted a batch of articles relating to the Dictator Novel, a genre of Latin American fiction. Students at the University of British Columbia not only created or improved these articles, but got them through demanding review processes (Murray, 2008).
During my placement as Wikimedian in Residence, hosted by the Bodleian Libraries, I am looking to support tutors in running assignments that benefit from Wikipedia as a platform. With appropriate support, informed by lessons learned from past assignments, this can be a positive experience for students and for tutors. Anyone with an interest in finding out more is welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Murray, J.B. (2008). ‘Was introducing Wikipedia to the classroom an act of madness leading only to mayhem if not murder?’.
Grathwohl, C. (2011). ‘Wikipedia Comes of Age.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Wiki Education Foundation (2016). ‘Does editing Wikipedia change a student’s life?’.