From Pariah to Partner: Wikipedia’s Growing Campus Presence | From the Bell Tower

For years, many faculty members wanted nothing to with Wikipedia and actively discouraged its use by students. With support from academic librarians, higher ed is taking a whole new look at Wikipedia as an educational resource.
Steven BellFor years, many faculty members wanted nothing to with Wikipedia and actively discouraged its use by students. With support from academic librarians, higher ed is taking a whole new look at Wikipedia as an educational resource. My initial reaction to Wikipedia was to consider it little more than an annoyance that drew students away from high quality reference resources better equipped to support college-level research. Faculty were largely aligned with that view. Students were warned to avoid even looking at Wikipedia, let alone citing it in a paper. There was only one problem: The “just say no” approach to Wikipedia worked as well with college students as it did for America’s drug war. In the first Project Information Literacy Report, back in 2009, Wikipedia was  described as a “unique and indispensable research source for students.” Students said Wikipedia was their “first go-to place”. As one student said it “helps when I have no idea what to do for a research paper.” Unfortunately, students with this question too infrequently seek out librarians for assistance. In time we learned that the way to teach students about Wikipedia was to vastly increase their engagement with it. That sounds counterintuitive, but it’s what seems to work.

Building a Partnership

Rather than treat Wikipedia like an unwelcome relative, a few forward-thinking institutions connected with it to give Wikipedia a presence on campus. This initially occurred through the Campus Ambassador program. Institutions would select a staff member or two, often a librarian, to gain expertise in Wikipedia editing. The Ambassador, after training, would work to get faculty to think differently about it and to encourage them to consider using Wikipedia to engage students in research and writing. When I learned that librarians were helping faculty develop research projects that required students to research and write, or edit, Wikipedia articles, I knew I had to learn more. A few months ago Jami Mathewson, Educational Partnerships Manager at the Wiki Education Foundation, visited my library to tell our staff and faculty about the higher education–related programs available through the Wiki Education Foundation. For this column I invited Mathewson to tell us more about the programs.
Hi Jami. Can you start by describing what the Wiki Education Foundation is and tell us more about your role as Educational Partnerships Manager? The Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed for short) is a nonprofit organization running educational programs to improve Wik­ipedia’s quality. Our flagship program—the Classroom Program—involves students contributing to Wikipedia as a class assignment. Students already research and write, so doing that and sharing it on Wikipedia helps them practice writing, critical thinking, and media literacy skills, while also making academic knowledge more accessible to the general public. My role is to develop partnerships with like-minded organizations. Our partners are one way for us to grow. Typically, these partners encourage their members to think about Wikipedia’s importance in disseminating knowledge to the public. Then they point members toward our Classroom Program, since it’s a proven way to close content gaps on Wikipedia. Faculty have been known to advise students to avoid Wikipedia for their research. What’s changing about the relationship between higher education and Wikipedia? A key distinction we like to make is that we agree students shouldn’t cite Wikipedia, much as they wouldn’t cite another encyclopedia. Rather, students’ research papers should examine secondary sources—the same sources we use on Wikipedia. That said, Wikipedia is a great starting place for research, as long as students know how to read it and evaluate the sources that are being used. And that’s a big appeal to the assignment: They don’t just learn how to produce knowledge, they also learn how to consume it. What exactly is the Classroom Program? How would this be of benefit to an academic librarian? The Classroom Program is really our flagship program. Instructors assign students to write Wikipedia articles on certain topics. Those articles require good sources, and we’ve heard stories about how the assignment sparks some students’ first trip to the library. That’s opening a door for a relationship between students and their library—or librarians—that they may not otherwise have. Discussing the types of resources, books, articles, and other possible references is a big part of the assignment. It’s a great chance for librarians to demystify the library. It can expand students’ understanding of the resources libraries have, beyond “that’s where the books are.” Also, libraries seem to prioritize helping students achieve real-world skills that are applicable beyond the classroom, and the Wikipedia assignment is one way to do that. Can you recommend an approach academic librarians can use to engage faculty in a conversation about trying the Classroom Program? How do you get faculty to see the value? I often start by explaining why Wikipedia is such a big deal. There’s simply no other resource or reference getting half a billion monthly readers. If faculty look at it through that lens and believe their role as a researcher and instructor is to educate the world, they can piece together why it’s so important for Wikipedia to be high quality and comprehensive. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this project has a big impact on student motivation and learning outcomes. Most faculty I speak to realize it’s a win for both the students and the world. How about the Visiting Scholars Program? Why would an academic library want to participate? We’ve found the program is a natural alignment with libraries that prioritize public access to knowledge. Some have a really focused public mission, and Wikipedia is one branch of a public outreach campaign for a special collection, for example. We’ve also seen good evidence that when libraries make their resources available through Wikipedia, those collections get big boosts in traffic thanks to links from Wikipedia, which is a juggernaut of web traffic. Unfortunately, we don’t have any consistent way to track that. How does a librarian go about getting started with either the Classroom Program or Visiting Scholars Program?  Beyond reaching out to the Wiki Education Foundation ( will get a quick response), librarians interested in the Classroom Program should visit this link. To explore sponsoring a Visiting Scholar, they should visit this link. Can you share a success story for these programs? Just this spring term, a student completing an independent study project essentially wrote her entire field of study into existence on Wikipedia. Imagine if you were studying to become a chemist and found an encyclopedia article with just a few sentences describing the entire field of chemistry (Fun fact: the oldest documented version of the Chemistry article from 2001 has one sentence, a few lists, and appears to have been written by one of Wikipedia’s cofounders). That’s essentially what happened to this student studying geobiology, only it took 15 years of Wikipedia for her to come along and expand it. I think it’s incredibly powerful for a student to affect the world and our understanding of science in that way. Visiting Scholars are experienced Wikipedia contributors, so having access to a university library helps them channel their expertise into high quality articles. One Visiting Scholar made more than 200 edits to the article about Founding Father George Mason and turned it into a Featured Article—the highest achievement on Wikipedia. Do you have any suggestions for an instruction librarian who would like to engage students with Wikipedia in a one-hour library research session? Librarians might be interested in getting students to add relevant, credible citations to articles. This is especially easy with the Visual Editor—Wikipedia’s interface that doesn’t require a markup language. Wikipedia has metadata pointing users to articles needing citations (the famous “Citation needed” links), and an hour is perfect for students to utilize the powerful research at their fingertips and make several contributions.

Wins On Many Levels

Make no mistake: A well designed Classroom Program project takes time to develop, and the implementation happens weekly throughout much of an entire semester. Fortunately the Wiki Ed Foundation offers plenty of documentation and training guides that explain how the project works. With guidance from academic librarians, faculty and students can tackle large swaths of underrepresented topics to support Wikipedia’s need for more gender- and race-related entries. Educators continually look for better ways to engage their students. Wikipedia research projects offer much more than traditional ten-page research papers. Students, when the project concludes, are rewarded by their creation, a much more memorable experience than a soon-forgotten term paper. Through its educational programs, the Wiki Education Foundation offers a way to engage students with authentic learning. As Mathewson said, that’s a win for faculty, their students, the public, and academic librarians. Thank you Jami Mathewson for sharing your knowledge about the Wiki Education Foundation programs and encouraging us to give them a try at our libraries. Save Save

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