In education Wikipedia has received much criticism. Built on pillars of openness and collaboration, the free encyclopedia directly challenges traditional notions of academic authority and integrity. Unlike traditional publications Wikipedia keeps visibility of names of authors very low, and there is no editorial committee and no proofreader list. Anybody can create an article and propose changes, and anybody can be a proofreader, editing and expanding others work. In the hands of the people possibilities abound for opposing edits that contrast with opinions and beliefs, and the spread of fake news. The claim is therefore that Wikipedia is unreliable and untrustworthy in comparison with peer-reviewed publications, and should not to be used in teaching, learning or research.
However, students steadily resort to Wikipedia even when explicitly told not to. It is convenient, it is accessible, it is free, generally comprehensive, and upon finding something useful in Wikipedia it strengthens its credibility for them. It would be misleading to say that this is just a trend for students. A recent research project on Wikipedia undertaken at Liverpool Hope University (UK) and based on a sample of 133 academics and 1222 students, found widespread usage (75%) by both students and academics. In fact, the rate of Wikipedia usage found was the same for both communities, showing that they were both making large use of it.
So, education is using Wikipedia yet openly rejecting it. Research has shown that whilst academics lament errors in the encyclopedia they contribute little to improve the articles, when in fact they would be one of the best groups to do so, especially in a climate where promoting public engagement with research is high on the Higher Education agenda. In an article written for The Guardian Online in 2011 a call to action went out to the academic community to get involved in Wikipedia. In it Dario Taraborelli, a research analyst for the Wikimedia Foundation lamented that academics “are trapped in this paradox of using Wikipedia but not contributing”. Perhaps the reason is because their efforts would not be recognised (no self-citing is a rule of Wikipedia), or perhaps it is because the Wikipedian community is equal – academic status of individuals is not recognised. Despite research showing that Wikipedia is almost on a par with the Encyclopedia Brittanica in terms of errors, perhaps they simply do not trust its integrity and do not want to invest the time.
But the tide is turning. Universities are beginning to understand the value of Wikipedia both as a teaching tool and as a means of adding knowledge to world. Following the lead of a number of museums and cultural heritage institutions University libraries and museums are making collections available through the platform, making them accessible to all whilst promoting their expertise in new or updated articles. A number of Universities including the University of Oxford and University of Edinburgh now have ‘Wikipedians in residence’ to support them to make the most of the opportunities the platform and community provides through undertaking specific projects, training staff, and holding events. Further more, once investigated further academics are often surprised to see the high quality criteria and rules Wikipedia places around the development of content, the extensive training provided to become a ‘Wikipedian’, and an important principle underlying its use: Wikipedia do not recommend that its articles cited, but that users investigate the reputable sources used to form the article and cite those.
In terms of teaching, it is the challenges that Wikipedia faces in terms of its reliability that makes it a rich platform to fold into learning activities. In particular activities designed to support students undertaking research on a particular topic and evaluate the sources of information they find. It also provides an opportunity to reinforce and bring in the development of digital literacies from a space that often exists outside of the subject (e.g. study skills, libraries, graduate training etc). This form of inquiry-based learning combined with the development of academic literacies is a powerful combination.
Wikipedia itself provides a space for educators to access useful resources and share Wikipedia assignments they have created. However, in the context that I did not want to use an assignment that stretched over a number of weeks and was formally assessed, I’ve designed a short learning activity (roughly 2 hours) that I have integrated on modules that ask students to conduct research into a specific topic. The task focuses on reviewing Wikipedia articles and their sources, and encourages students to submit changes to the article talk page rather than make them themselves (which involves a longer, more-in depth activity). Much of the material I have used has been re-purposed and adapted from Wikipedia’s training material, but from it I have created an interactive H5P presentation that can be plugged into a wide number of VLEs. Wikipedia’s materials are all available under a Creative Commons license, and as such others can take, reuse and adapt what I have developed. I must also give a hat-tip to a recent podcast I listened to in Bonnie Stachowiak’s series ‘Teaching in Higher Ed‘ on Experience Inquiry. The interview with professor and author Kimberly L. Mitchell sparked ideas for the student activities.
If you use or adapt the Wikipedia task we would love to hear from you.
Download the H5P interactive presentation by clicking on the ‘reuse’ link.
Corbyn, Z (2011) Wikipedia wants more contribution from academics. The Guardian Online. 29th March 2011. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/mar/29/wikipedia-survey-academic-contributions (accessed 5 March 2018)
Knight, C and Sam, P (2012). Wikipedia and the University, a
case study. Teaching in Higher Education (17.6). Available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2012.666734. (accessed 5 March 2018).