Wikipedia and education: what’s the right fit?

I just submitted a talk and an edit-a-thon session, along with my colleague Sara Frank Bristow, for the upcoming Open Education Conference in Washinton DC. We plan to explore the best fit between Wikipedia and academia, drawing on our experience with the Wikipedia Education Program, Communicate OER, and a variety of case studies. Below are the session descriptions we submitted:

Wikipedia: Love it or hate it, it’s here. What to do?

Pete Forsyth presenting on Wikipedia. Photo by Sage Ross, CC BY-SA

Pete Forsyth presenting on Wikipedia. Photo by Sage Ross, CC BY-SA

Wikipedia’s central value to academia & learning lies more in in its processes than in its content.

In 2007, Wikipedia was banned as a citable source by the history department of Middlebury College, drawing much attention from the media, the public, and academia. This debate over Wikipedia as a trusted source has continued to rage ever since; but many professors and students have found that Wikipedia actually does have a place in academia, entirely independent of its value as an academic source. Wikipedia offers educators and students opportunities to engage with it as an OER, and ways to draw connections between their studies and the non-academic world.

Educators around the world have put Wikipedia to good use as a teaching tool, by having their students engage with its collaborative processes. Wikipedia is built and maintained by self-organizing volunteers all over the world; your students can join their ranks by writing or editing an article as part of their coursework. Exposing students to a productive online community can have many benefits. Students might find themselves discussing the relative authenticity of source materials, identifying agenda-driven advocacy in an existing article, or solving complex problems through asynchronous text-based discussion. Educators have employed Wikipedia assignments in pursuit of a variety of learning objectives, including writing skills, research skills, media literacy, and collaboration.

For educators interested in OER, Wikipedia offers unique opportunities. Many of the activities involved in finding, evaluating, using, and remixing OERs for a course have parallels in Wikipedia. Engaging with Wikipedia can have an additional benefit, beyond the immediate learning outcomes, of helping students and teachers adapt and iterate their practices to access the benefits of OER.

In addition, as Wikipedia has established and sustained a place as the world’s most widely read general reference work, it has become a uniquely valuable communication platform. The public’s perception and understanding of any topic is often shaped by, or at least reflected by, what Wikipedia has to say about the topic. Many organizations, including the Smithsonian, Consumer Reports, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have applied resources toward improving Wikipedia, while honoring the site’s policy of a neutral point of view.

In this talk, we will argue that Wikipedia offers significant opportunities to academics, which can best be explored by using its collaborative platform as a teaching tool and as a robust and flexible, if unusual, OER. We will delve into several specific opportunities, and also discuss the question of whether academics, in their role as curators of society’s knowledge, may have a duty to work toward the improvement of Wikipedia’s content in their area of expertise.


Participants in an edit-a-thon in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013. Photo by Pete Forsyth, available under CC BY license.

Participants in an edit-a-thon in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013. Photo by Pete Forsyth, available under CC BY license.

Learn about Wikipedia’s collaborative processes by diving in! Improve an article, add a reference, or upload a photo.

Wikipedia offers many opportunities for teachers and learners to engage in collaborative processes, and to build and remix OERs, as we saw in the session: “Wikipedia: Love it or hate it, it’s here. What to do?”

In this edit-a-thon session, participants will have the opportunity to explore Wikipedia, with experienced Wikipedia editors on hand to help out, answer questions, and provide context.

We will guide participants in tasks like creating an account, fixing a typo or grammatical error, starting a new article, and improving existing articles. Please bring a laptop, an idea of an article you’d like to explore or improve, and if you like, some reference materials to use as sources.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
This entry was posted in Communicate OER, edit-a-thon, wiki, Wikipedian in Residence and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.