Having students work on Wikipedia articles as part of their course work

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Announcing the new WikiProject Sanitation - inviting all SuSanA members to get involved and donate a little bit of their time

Are you working in a university environment, e.g. as a lecturer? Then please read on, as this forum post is specifically for you to think about if you could do something similar with your students.

I recently came across a lecturer in biology at Imperial College London because he's been giving out student assignments to improve Wikipedia articles for seveal years, and one of those articles happened to be on my watchlist, namely the article on Fasciola hepatica ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasciola_hepatica ), which is a type of helminth.

I made contact with him on his talk page ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Polypomp...or_these_assignments ) and he sent me a link to a blog post he wrote a few years ago: www.polypompholyx.com/2012/04/community-payback-for-undergrads/

It's an interesting blog post and I would say his motivation for getting his students to edit on Wikipedia is simlar to my motivation for editing on Wikipedia (and for trying to get colleagues to edit as well).

I copy some sections from his blog post:

Two acquaintances of mine, both teachers of one kind or another, tell me that they no longer feel comfortable steering students away from Wikipedia, because they can no longer maintain the prim pretence that they themselves aren’t consulting it on a daily basis.

I’ve long appreciated Wikipedia for its convenience and tolerable accuracy; and been amused by its unforgivable mis-prioritisation. On the other hand, I’ve been irritated by the scrappiness of articles on concepts I’ve taught and saddened by the thoughtless pasting of its content into some of the essays I mark.

Its uncritical use is a curse, but Wikipedia itself is a wonderful resource.

Unfortunately for the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, a straw-poll of sixty students I was teaching recently turned up only one person who had contributed an edit of any kind. In 2011, Wikimedia estimated that only 6% of readers ever edit articles, and even this low figure is probably an overestimate, given that those who responded to the poll were the sort of helpful (but highly unrepresentative) people who respond to polls with something other than “send to trash”. The main reason cited for not editing was “happy to just read the articles”, but the other popular reasons were related to lack of confidence in how to edit, and lack of confidence in the ability to incorporate accurate information (“how to write”).

So, aside from the obvious barrier of actually caring enough to correct or write an article at all, there is a barrier to entry for that “Anyone” who wants to edit Wikipedia. Some potential editors find the wiki mark-up difficult: the days of students being on speaking terms with HTML entities are passing as surely as have the days of grues and 5¼ inch floppies. * There is the worry that you’ll be treading on somebody’s toes if you edit that somebody’s favourite article. And, of course, there is the fear of releasing your fragile words upon the world, when that world is full of spiteful and joyless critics.

* I see this HTML programming issue as a thing of the past as Wikipedia now has an editor that is as easy to use as Word.

Some articles started out as stubs, others were more complete before the editing took place. For a workshop done for course-credit, stubs are a simpler thing to assess, as the contribution is obvious. However, some stubs are stubs for the obvious reason that there’s precious little that you can say (let alone verify) about the topic, so allowing participants to edit more complete articles is sensible. It’s easy enough to use the diff to see what has been added and removed, providing the majority of the edit is committed as one big chunk (having been prepared in the participant’s sandbox).

If you think any of the improved articles are in need of further improvement, then you know what you can do .


There are plenty of dodgy, incomplete and missing articles on Wikipedia, and it would be great to get students involved in editing articles much earlier in their careers.

Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
Independent consultant
Community manager of this forum via SEI
(see: www.susana.org/en/resources/projects/details/127 )
Wikipedian, co-founder of WikiProject Sanitation: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Sanitation

Location: Frankfurt, Germany
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Twitter: @EvMuench
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