D.15: Teaching with Wikipedia: Cultivating Community, Creating Change

Reviewed by: LauraAnne Carroll-Adler, University of Southern California (lauraana@usc.edu) 

Speakers: Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Cross-Institutional Collaboration and WikipediaEdit-a-thons"
Greta Kuriger Suiter, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Cultivating Community: Edit-a-thons, Archives, and SpecialCollections"
Cecelia A. Musselman, Northeastern University, "Wikipedia, Science, and Students: An Emerging Community"
David Cregar, New York University, "Wikipedia and International/ELL Students"
Amy Carleton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Cultivating Community in Online Courses with Wikipedia" 

The session opened with background on Wikipedia—a slide explaining The Five Pillars of Wikipedia. Briefly, from the Wikipedia site:

  • Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
  •  Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
  •  Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  •  Editors should treat each other with respect and civility
  •  Wikipedia has no firm rules

(More information and explanation is available in "Useful Links" below) 

The panel set up the themes that would define all the presentations: the use of Wikipedia and its support mechanisms to reinforce key learning objectives for writing classes—critical thinking, research skills and information literacy, and writing skills.

The first speaker, Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, spoke on "Cross-Institutional Collaboration and Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons." Thorndike-Breeze described her experience with an Edit-a-thon—an event that brings experts in an under-represented field on Wikipedia to work with an experienced Wikipedian. The event was a Gallery, Librarian, Art, and Museum (GLAM) function. In explaining why such events were necessary, Thorndike-Breeze noted that 80% of the editors who contribute to Wikipedia are white and male; these workshops aim to bring expertise on fields dominated by other demographic groups and bring diverse perspectives to Wikipedia. The events also provide social spaces for learning and collaborating. She shared the Wikipedia-hosted outreach dashboard for the event, showing dates of events, number of editors, and new content produced. These help participants see how the project is coming together.

Greta Kuriger Suiter continued with the topic of the GLAM edit-a-thon in "Cultivating Community: Edit-a-thons, Archives, and Special Collections." These events, she pointed out, serve as an inspiration to librarians and cultural institutions. These institutions can highlight previously under-appreciated collections though a Wikipedia event. Kuriger Suiter suggested identifying collections in archives that are missing from Wikipedia, but that are notable enough to belong, and that had materials available. She provided some examples of themes on which to build sessions:

  •  General Archives
  •  Black History Month
  •  Art + Feminism (global)
  •  Images of Science and Tech
  •  Rare books
  •  Women in Politics

Kuriger Suiter also provided several alternatives for contributing to projects, noting that participation is not limited to creating new articles. For example, many existing articles have “Citations Needed” flags that need to be researched. Others may need grammar, style, or formatting edits, or may need updating or additional information. Even the Infoboxes at the head of many Wikipedia articles need creation, editing, and updating.

Cecelia A. Musselman, the next presenter, offered theoretical and practical information on the uses of Wikipedia in her paper "Wikipedia, Science, and Students: An Emerging Community." Musselman recommended using the Wikipedia Education Dashboard (see "Useful Links" below). She discussed how the platform meets many of the objectives for composition classes, such as research skills and critical thinking. In order to contribute to an entry, of course, students must gain experience researching in that field. They also exercise critical thinking as they practice making decisions that matter in a public forum—they have an impact on a wider circle of readers. Students become attentive to the process of evaluating material and curating it. Students also learn to look for gaps in coursework in their chosen field of research to find out what topics need their help and what information readers need. Finally, Wikipedia provides students with contrasting modes of writing. Wikipedia’s insistence on "neutrality" in its articles exemplifies a different type of writing from the argumentative essay. Students see that primary literature isn’t "neutral," and that secondary or interpretative sources must be evaluated for strength of argument and support. Tertiary materials—such as encyclopedias—must adopt a stance and suitable content that evaluates sources and arguments to present a good-faith neutral resource.

Musselman also brought up issues of privacy and identification, common themes for instructors who use the web for class assignments. Students may encounter opposition in presenting their writing on a public forum, which won’t be as sheltered and supportive as most classrooms, and they should be prepared for this.

Wikipedia, she pointed out, needs everybody—all different types of skills and knowledge. Musselman provided the example of one student who was interested in coral species. This student did extensive research in identifying distinct species. The work eventually provided only one new line in the Wikipedia entry, but this was that student’s path to bringing new knowledge for everyone to access. Perhaps most important—Wikipedia promotes writing. It can be described as the largest writing project in the world.

David Cregar presented "Wikipedia and International/ELL Students" on using Wikipedia to help ELL and NNS use and assess sources in preparation for writing research-based papers. He noted that Wikipedia also brings in concepts of ethos and feedback; he found the Talk pages—where editors discuss and justify changes to pages—particularly helpful for exemplifying ways of arguing and convincing. The contrast between the argumentative section and the Wikipedia articles also illustrated the difference between the two modes of writing. To illustrate, he showed a slide on the Talk page for Christopher Columbus. Students discussed what might be problematic about Columbus. They looked at a source—a quotation from Jamaica Kincaid's "On Seeing England for the First Time"—and examined what they would need to know beyond the text to complete the article:

The existence of the world as I came to know it was a result of this: idea of thing over here, reality of thing way, way over there. There was Christopher Columbus, an unlikable man, an unpleasant man, a liar (and so of course, a thief) surrounded by maps and schemes and plans, and there was the reality on the other side of that width, that depth, that darkness. (Kincaid, 1991, p. 37)

Talk pages showed a discussion over how to label Columbus—one editor changed his entry to read "slave trader" rather than "explorer." A discussion ensued as to whether either label was informative. The final result described him as "Explorer, navigator, and colonizer."

The final presenter, Amy Carleton, approached the use of Wikipedia in terms of building a sense of community for online classes in her paper "Cultivating Community in Online Courses with Wikipedia." She noted that a sense of isolation and frustration with the barriers of course management systems used for online courses can decrease student engagement and success in online courses. Writing classes, in particular, emphasize process and feedback, which can be difficult to reproduce in an online environment. Carleton turned to Wikipedia as one way to address the challenge of replicating the sense of community that on-ground classes have. Students, even those who were initially resistant, grew to respect the project. One example she used was a nursing student, whose research on caregiver/patient violence led her to an emphasis on patient-initiated violence. This student discovered a niche topic that benefited from her specialized research and input.

Carleton found that the process created a dynamic, multi-transactional community for the students. She reiterated Mussleman’s recommendation of the WikiEd Dashboard, finding it an invaluable resource. Carleton concluded by defining a learning community as one having shared goals, which in her experience happens with Wikipedia assignments, even when the course is all online.

The panel’s final suggestion for the audience was to use the Wikipedia resources, including training workshops for instructors, at the "Wikipedia 101" page.


The discussion started with a comment and suggestion from a member of the panel, Musselman, on the "Women in Red" project, dedicated to getting better representation of important women in Wikipedia. The red-linked women are those who have been flagged as needing an as yet unwritten article, so these provide a good place to start writing for Wikipedia.

The first audience question wondered whether many of these projects were not most appropriate for advanced writing classes, and the questioner wanted to know if there were resources available more specifically for first-year composition. Musselman responded that she had used her project in a first-year class and that it was successful, she believes, because students took the work seriously. They felt the weight of the writing. When working on the Women in Red project, for example, some students called or wrote to the women whose biographies they were covering or contacted the Smithsonian to get images to use for the entry.

She did note, however, as she had mentioned in her presentation, that the potential for failure is always there. Articles may be deleted or edited once posted, and students need to be prepared for that possibility. It’s important, then, that students know they won’t be graded on the reaction of Wikipedia editors. She advises putting the emphasis on reflection and examining what went wrong with the work as presented. And, since the "Fail" didn’t come from the instructor, but from an outside editor, she believes students were re-motivated to renew efforts. Carleton added that versions of Wikipedia projects had been used with students as young as 6th graders; it was a question of finding the right niche.

Another questioner requested ideas on the range of uses or topics for Wikipedia projects. Responses came from panelists and from other audience members and ranged from a literature class assignment that worked with the Wikipedia pages on assigned texts to a meta-assignment on source credibility analysis. Musselman added that many aspects of the project can lead to productive discussions on critical thinking. The choice of images used for political figures in biographical entries, for example, brings up concepts of visual rhetoric and neutrality.

Several audience members raised the issue of increased risk and temptation for plagiarism. One interesting note in the panelists’ response was that plagiarism is often caught and corrected by the Wikipedia community. This can be a good lesson for students who may think plagiarism is merely a classroom issue; they learn it can have real-world consequences and undermine one’s credibility.

The final discussion looked at scaffolding for Wikipedia projects; panelists were asked how to prepare the class for this type of work and make connections to other course goals. Musselman re-emphasized the importance of the WikiEd dashboard. Panelists also recommended that instructors contact Wikipedia, which has resources for instructors, and suggested careful timing, allowing for responses and feedback from the Wikipedia community. Musselman noted that the project can get started by working in the “background” of class work on other assignments, with students researching topics and becoming familiar with Wikipedia rules and conventions as they turn in other assignments. The panel clearly inspired more interest in using Wikipedia as a resource in the classroom and as a public academic service. The audience left still discussing and sharing ideas, a sign that the papers would leave a lasting impression. The participants uploaded their presentation slides (see "References"), which provide more information and resources on these continuing and evolving projects. 


Kincaid, Jamaica. (1991). "On Seeing England for the First Time." Transitions, 51. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935076

Thorndike-Breeze, Rebecca, Suiter, Greta Kuriger, Musselman, Cecelia A., Cregar, David, & Carleton, Amy. (2017). Teaching with Wikipedia: Cultivating community, creating change. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B31DjKv_2V5fak9UZDAzZXVaQk0/view

Campaign: Art+Feminism 2017. (n.d.) Outreach Dashboard. Retrieved January 5, 2018 from https://outreachdashboard.wmflabs.org/campaigns/artfeminism_2017/overview

Wiki 101. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Wiki_101

Wiki education dashboard. (n.d.) Wiki Education. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://dashboard.wikiedu.org/

Wikipedia: Five pillars. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars

Wikipedia: WikiProject medicine. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Medicine

Wikipedia: WikiProject women in red project. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 5, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women_in_Red

Created by cheryl. Last Modification: Monday 15 of January, 2018 20:25:04 UTC by ccccreviews.