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Wikipedia Engagement Can Enhance eLearning

By Shannon A.B. Perry / March 2021

TYPE: OPINION
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Wikipedia, the free, crowdsourced online encyclopedia, celebrates its 20th birthday this year. What began as an experiment in collaborative authorship has evolved into a knowledge portal encompassing 285 languages and many sub-projects. English Wikipedia now holds 6.2 million articles [1] and receives around 10 billion page views every month.

Figure 1. Wikipedia English Total page views per month.


Source: Wikimedia Statistics. Available under the Creative Commons CC0 dedication.
[click to enlarge]

In addition to being among the most trafficked sites on the internet [2], Google, Twitter, and other platforms use Wikipedia’s volunteer-generated content in subtle and obvious ways [3, 4, 5]. Against the platform’s policies, corporations, small businesses, private citizens, and, even, governments, hire editors as part of their public relations strategies [6, 7]. This indicates that how Wikipedia frames a subject reverberates across the internet and offline in ways that matter [8, 9].

Many educators now recognize Wikipedia as a significant site of learning. University professors, across disciplines, have incorporated Wikipedia into their curricula [10], including for teaching controversial political issues [11] and durable skills like composition, collaboration, information literacy, and basic research [12]. I suggest two vital reasons why eLearning facilitators should consider adding Wikipedia to their pedagogical toolkits.

Helps Learners Cultivate 21st Century Skills

Data literacy, digital media creation, collaboration, creativity, and empathy are among the skills 21st-century citizens need to flourish [13, 14]. The ability to critically analyze points of view and assess the reliability of information sources has never been more important. Wikipedia is an unparalleled educational resource through which learners can build these skills by acting as both critical consumers and producers of media.

Educators can empower learners to engage with Wikipedia in more participatory ways. Though those wanting to create Wikipedia-based assignments or courses will need to invest some time learning the platform’s technological aspects, style and policy guidelines, and cultural norms, the pedagogical benefits may prove worth it. Undergraduate students contributing to Wikipedia reported increased confidence in their writing and research abilities. The authentic, public nature of the writing tasks also produced higher-quality writing [12]. With appropriate instruction and flexible assignments, Wikipedia engagement can encourage learners to explore individual curiosities and interests, allowing for the practice of self-directed learning alongside other collaborative 21st century skills.

Contributes to Positive Social Change

Wikipedia also offers one avenue for participating in creating positive social change on a global level. Consider that many people, including physicians, use the platform to find reliable health information. This reality makes access to understandable, peer-reviewed research findings vital, and many health professionals have joined the ranks of lay Wikipedia editors to write this information into Wikipedia [15,16,17]. Then there are communities, like Art + Feminism and Women in Red, working to combat the systemic gender bias manifested in Wikipedia by increasing the numbers of articles about women as well as the low numbers of women editors. Their efforts help to rectify the persistent erasure of women from many reference texts [18,19], making more accurate representations and diverse perspectives available to greater numbers. 

Participation in Wikipedia asserts, in line with the open culture and free and open-source software movements, that knowledge ought to be accessible to the public [20] and that commons spaces possess great value. Assuming the responsibility of personal participation acknowledges that real social consequences result when the public lacks access to clear and accurate information. For educators, then, engagement with Wikipedia represents a promising avenue for practicing both public scholarship and pedagogical praxis.

Adding Wikipedia to the Pedagogical Toolbox

Diverse types of eLearning educators can incorporate Wikipedia into their practice in various ways. Librarians are natural partners for educating around how to locate, assess, and incorporate diverse secondary sources into articles. Instructional designers can contribute materials to Wikiversity’s repository of open educational resources for use by other educators and learners engaged in independent study. Archivists and multimedia educators can have students digitize and upload original works and public domain or royalty-free photographs and other materials to help expand Wikimedia Commons, the visual repository from which Wikipedia articles pull images. Many more possibilities exist.

K-12 and higher education instructors should first help students learn the basics of Wikipedia editing and culture before asking them to heavily modify existing pages or create new ones. Having students assess the quality of a particular article’s references and suggest others, analyze a debate unfolding on the Talk page of an article covering a controversial topic, and making minor edits to improve existing pages are appropriate beginner assignments. Helpful resources for getting started include:

References

[1] Wikipedia statistics. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2020

[2] The top 500 sites on the web. Alexa. 2020.

[3] Harrison, S. Twitter wants to use Wikipedia to help determine who gets a blue checkmark. Slate. Dec. 4, 2020.

[4] Matsakis, L. Google gives Wikimedia millions—plus machine learning tools: When the tech giant helps Wikipedia, it’s also helping itself. Wired. Jan. 22, 2019.

[5] Nieva, R. Wikipedia's disinformation task force braces for a high-stakes election. CNET. Nov. 2, 2020

[6] Miller, C, China and Taiwan clash over Wikipedia edits. BBC. Oct. 4, 2019.

[7] Pinsker, J. The covert world of people trying to edit Wikipedia—for pay. The Atlantic. Aug. 11, 2015.

[8] Hern, A. Wikipedia edits have massive impact on tourism, say economists. The Guardian. Sept. 18, 2020.

[9] Song, V. A teen threw Scots wiki into chaos and it highlights a massive problem with Wikipedia. Gizmodo. Aug. 26, 2020.

[10] Jiawei Xang, J. and Matthew Vetter, M. Editing for equity: Understanding instructor motivations for integrating cross-disciplinary Wikipedia assignments. First Monday 25, 6 (2020).

[11] Cassell, M. K. When the world helps teach your class: Using Wikipedia to teach controversial issues. PS: Political Science & Politics 51, 2 (2018), 427–433.

[12] Dawe, L. and Robinson, A. Wikipedia editing and information literacy: A case study. Information and Learning Sciences 118, 1/2 (2017), 5–16.

[13] Centre for the New Economy and Society. The Future of Jobs Report 2018. World Economic Forum. 2018.

[14] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and development. The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030. OECD. 2018.

[15] Masukume, G., Kipersztok, L., Das, D., Shaffee, T. M. A., Laurent, M. R. and Heilman, J. M. Medical journals and Wikipedia: A global health matter. The Lancet Global Health 4, 11 (2016), e791.

[16] Benjakob, O. On Wikipedia, a fight is raging over coronavirus disinformation. Wired. Feb. 9, 2020.

[17] McNeil, D. G. Jr. Wikipedia and W.H.O. join to combat Covid-19 misinformation. The New York Times Oct. 22, 2020.

[18] Jacobson, K. Filling in the gender gap on Wikipedia. Fortune. March 11, 2020.

[19] Wagner, C., Graells-Garrido, E., Garcia, D., and Menczer, F. Women through the glass ceiling: Gender asymmetries in Wikipedia. EPJ Data Science 5, 5 (2016).

[20] Coleman, G. The political agnosticism of free and open source software and the inadvertent politics of contrast. Anthropological Quarterly 77, 3 (2004), 507–519.

About the Author

Shannon A. B. Perry is an instructional designer in the Office of Research at the University of Georgia. She is a doctoral student in the Learning, Leadership, and Organizational Development program at UGA, and her research interests include whole-person learning in virtual communities, higher education professional development, and arts-based inquiry.

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