Wikipedia in Higher Education: How students are shaping the open web
This post is the third in a series of blog posts for Open Education Week.
Since the early 2000’s, Wikipedia has acquired somewhat of a negative reputation for being unreliable. Educators are normally wary of allowing Wikipedia as a source that anyone can edit. This is due to believing it to be a source of misinformation, going directly against their role to reduce misinformation in the world.
However, what if the contrary is true?
What if Wikipedia can be used to reduce misinformation in the world, an often-highlighted problem of our current times. This is the very mission of Wikimedia organisation. The Wikimedia projects exist to combat misinformation. Indeed, Wikipedians have been combating fake news for years as source evaluation is a core skill of a Wikipedian. Researchers found that only 7 percent of all Wikipedia edits are considered vandalism and nearly all vandalism edits are reverted instantly by automated programs (bots) which help to patrol Wikipedia for copyright violation, plagiarism and vandalism. If a page is targeted for vandalism it can also be ‘semi-protected’ (essentially locking the page so new edits are reviewed before being added) for one day, two days or longer as required while accounts or IP addresses repeating vandalism can be blocked indefinitely. While Wikipedia is still the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, a recent implementation is new users cannot create new pages until their account has been active for four days and accrued at least ten edits. Within the first four days, however, new users can submit their new pages for review by another editor who quality checks it is sufficiently neutral, notable and well-referenced for inclusion in Wikipedia’s live space.
Due to open licensing of Wikipedia content, it is more visible across the Internet. For example, Google scrapes from Wikipedia biographies to feature as sidebar profiles as part of its ‘Knowledge Graph’ answer engine results for notable people; among many other topics. Wikipedia articles also happen to be within the top five search results due to its preferential status in Google’s ranking algorithm.
Today Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website on the Internet and sometimes more trusted than traditional news publications, according to a recent YouGov poll. This poll indicated that Wikipedia was trusted by the British people more than such reputable news sites as the Guardian, BBC, the Telegraph, the Times and others. Wikipedia relies on these sources, and other similar sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy, so would not necessarily advocate trusting a Wikipedia article over these other sites.
However, Wikipedia’s policies on Neutral Point of View (NPOV) and identifying reliable sources do help police its content and plainly increases trust in its content. Research from the Harvard Business School has also discovered that, unlike other more partisan areas of the internet, Wikipedia’s focus on NPOV (neutral point of view) means editors actually become more moderate over time; the researchers seeing this as evidence that editing “Wikipedia helps break people out of their ideological echo chambers”. More than this, it is worth considering what value one would place on having somewhere online like Wikipedia – and unlike many other of the world’s top ten websites – where it is completely, ruthlessly transparent in how pages are put together so that you can see: when edits were made; and by whom; and so that edits can always be checked, challenged and corrected if need be. After all, all edits to a Wikipedia page are recorded in its View History which includes which account or IP address made the edit along with a date, time and edit summary. Importantly, these entries in the View History are all permanent links so that different versions of the page can be compared and, ultimately, so a page can always be reverted back to its last good state if any unhelpful edits are ever made.
Indeed, the process of researching and writing a Wikipedia article demonstrates ‘how the sausage is made’ – how knowledge is created, curated and contested online – and asks students as part of their research to consider what constitutes a reliable source. In this way, students can be introduced to the pros and cons of searching a variety of databases as part of discussions on information and media literacy. Ultimately, whether it is a news article, journal article or Wikipedia article one should always evaluate what one is reading. That much has always been true. Wikipedia, for its part, has as its policy that no Wikipedia page should be cited in an academic paper. Rather Wikipedia considers itself a tertiary source; an encyclopedia of articles made up from citations from high quality published secondary sources. If one cites anything it is these sources that one should cite, not Wikipedia itself. In this way, Wikipedia reframes itself as useful place for pre-researching a topic in order to orientate oneself before delving into the scholarly literature. Hence, it is not the endpoint of research but the beginning; the digital gateway to academic research. In this way, it can then be seen as a valuable resource in itself. 2016 research confirmed that 87.5% of students were using it in this way; in “an introductory and/or clarificatory role” as part of their information gathering and research and finding it ‘academically useful’ in this context. Now in its seventeenth year, Wikipedia has approaching 5.7 million articles in English with about ten edits per second across all Wikimedia projects and nearly 500 articles created each day. As the largest reference work on the internet, it is simply too big to fail now and too important a source of information for the world. Consequently, Wikipedia has realized this and has taken out an endowment to ensure it exists it perpetuity.
Within the boundaries of Wikipedia editing guidelines of notability, reliability, and verifiability, it can prove to be a valuable resource in education. Editing Wikipedia articles builds a number of key skills. It encourages digital creation and digital collaboration skills. It builds legal research skills through finding relevant sources. Most of all, the ability to synthesize the research in an accessible manner for a non-legal audience is an unique but incredibly valuable skill for any law student. What is amazing about editing and creating Wikipedia articles is that the articles it allows for dialogue and improvement over the article through collaboration with other editors.
Indeed, it was the ‘realness’ and collaborative element of the assignment that appealed to students on the Reproductive Biology Hons. programme along with seizing a rare opportunity to communicate medical knowledge to a lay audience. Being able to communicate to a non-specialist audience is a key skill for new medics just as communicating legal knowledge is a key skill for new entrants to the legal profession.
For History undergraduates, it was the opportunity to improve the public’s understanding of history in a way that was active and not just passively receiving knowledge. More than this, it was recognizing that people’s understanding of the diversity of history would not be improved until staff and students actively engaged with addressing these gaps in representation; particularly in underrepresented areas such as social history, gender history and queer history.
A Wikipedia assignment isn’t just another essay or presentation that students may never return to, but something that has actually been created; a way of demonstrating the relevance of a student’s degree and communicating their scholarship in a real-world application of teaching and learning. Beyond this, the experience of a Wikipedia assignment at Bucknell University was that:
“at the close of the semester, students said that simply knowing that an audience of editors existed was enough to change how they wrote. They chose words more carefully. They double-checked their work for accuracy and reliability. And they began to think about how best they could communicate their scholarship to readers who were as curious, conscientious, and committed and as they were”.
Once the article becomes live on Wikipedia and indexed in Google’s top five results, students realise that there is agency to sharing their scholarship with the world. By way of example, Reproductive Biology Honours student Áine Kavanagh’s scrupulously researched a brand new article on high-grade serous carcinoma, one of the most deadly and most common forms of ovarian cancer. This article, including over sixty references and open-licensed diagrams Áine herself created, has now been viewed almost 60,000 times since it was published in September 2016; adding a well-referenced source of health information to the global Open Knowledge community. Hence, rather than students’ work being disposed of at the end of an assignment, it can become a community project that can then be added to and improved over time; either by the students themselves or by other editors anywhere around the world. This has been a key motivator for students taking part in Wikipedia projects at the University of Edinburgh.
Of these other editors, there are some 2000+ WikiProjects on Wikipedia where editors come together to focus on a particular area of Wikipedia because they are passionate about the subject and/or have expertise in that area. If you check the Talk page of an article on Wikipedia you will see the WikiProject that has been assigned to ‘look after’ the article. In this way, content on Wikipedia is monitored and curated by a team of subject specialists; amateur enthusiasts and professionals alike. WikiProject Law aims to organise the law-related articles that consist of defining concepts spanning jurisdictions. There is a need for more articles focused on Scots law and there is scope to start a WikiProject to organise articles regarding Scots law.
There can be a number of applications within the law school. A Wikipedia assignment can be run in a single afternoon or over the course of an entire semester. It can be done as individual work, paired work or group work. Starting small and building up over time has proven a sensible methodology although best practice has been developed over a number of years at the university and elsewhere if bolder approaches are warranted.
Jemima presenting at the University of Edinburgh Law Editathon in May 2018.
It can be a formative assessed from a student perspective, it should be noted that if software seems too difficult to learn, students may feel like it is not worth the formative assessment and that it should be summative in nature. Indeed, recent experience is that students have been enthused to take part in Wikipedia assignments and put great efforts in to complete the assignment so receiving some feedback on their efforts always goes some way to ensuring they are fully satisfied by the experience: be it a group discussion; using a Wikipedia marking rubric; individual assessment; peer assessment; blogging their reflections on the project; or providing an oral presentation. The timing of the assignment may also help ensure its success. If it is assigned during a time of the term where other summative assessments may be due then the students may be more strategic in where they place their priorities.
Hence, past experience at the University of Edinburgh has suggested that a Wikipedia assignment incorporating such elements as students having discussions around information literacy and learning how to edit/ how to use a new form of educational technology may work best in the first semester as part of inducting the students into good digital research habits for the rest of the year before the course programme becomes busier in the second and third semesters. World Christianity MSc students and Psychology undergraduate students have also reported in recent interviews how the experience of adding references to Wikipedia was both a motivating and “very exciting” moment for them; partly because of the “slick” way Wikipedia allows you to add citations easily and partly because of the fact they were able to draw from relevant news articles and bring them together with books and journal articles (and more) to holistically convey the subject they were writing about.
In terms of how hard or difficult Wikipedia editing now is, Wikipedia has a new WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Visual Editor interface which is easy to learn in an hour and just takes a little practice. It makes use of dropdown menus much like one experiences in word processing applications such as Microsoft Word and WordPress blogging and has been described variously as “super easy”, “fun”, “really intuitive” and “addictive as hell.”
There is also scope for a Wikipedia assignment to form a proportion of the summative element of the course as they have done on the World Christianity MSc. It should be noted that contributions made to Wikipedia are not static, but rather they are picked up by other Wikipedia editors to improve the reliability of the site. In educational contexts, this could be seen negatively but students have intimated that they like their work surviving beyond the life of the assignment and becoming a community project that can be added to over time. Beyond this, students can download their finished pages as a pdf, create books of their finished articles and, because all edits are recorded as permanent links in the View History of a page, they will always have a permanent link to their version of the page, no matter what changes are made to improve or expand it by other editors.
Wikipedia is an useful source but it can never replace formal legal education which teaches specialist knowledge, analytical skills, ethical standards, and importantly impart a love of democracy and justice. Wikipedia in legal education will only supplement these activities.
 Kamenetz, Anya (2017). “What Students Can Learn By Writing For Wikipedia”. NPR.org.
 Davis, LiAnna (2016). “Why Wiki Education’s work combats fake news — and how you can help”. Wiki Education.
 Adler B.T., de Alfaro L., Mola-Velasco S.M., Rosso P., West A.G. (2011) Wikipedia Vandalism Detection: Combining Natural Language, Metadata, and Reputation Features.
 Beel, J.; Gipp, B. (2009). “Google Scholar’s ranking algorithm: The impact of citation counts (An empirical study)”. 2009 Third International Conference on Research Challenges in Information Science: 439–446. doi:1109/RCIS.2009.5089308.
 McMahon, Connor; Johnson, Isaac; and Hecht, Brent (2017). The Substantial Interdependence of Wikipedia and Google: A Case Study on the Relationship Between Peer Production Communities and Information Technologies.
 Thompson, Neil; Hanley, Douglas (2018). “Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial”. Rochester, NY.
 Guo, Jeff (2016). “Wikipedia is fixing one of the Internet’s biggest flaws”. Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286.
 “Wikipedia and Information Literacy – Academic Support Librarian Ruth Jenkins”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 Selwyn, Neil; Gorard, Stephen (2016). “Students’ use of Wikipedia as an academic resource — Patterns of use and perceptions of usefulness”. The Internet and Higher Education. 28: 28–34. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2015.08.004. ISSN 1096-7516.
 “Wikipedia in the Classroom – Interview with Aine Kavanagh (Reproductive Biology Hons. student)”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 “Wikipedia in the Classroom – Eve Sealy, Senior Honours student on the Reproductive Honours programme”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 “Wikipedia and History – Tomas Sanders, History undergraduate at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 “Wikipedia in the Classroom – Psychology student Karoline Nanfeldt”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 “World Christianity MSc students on the Wikipedia literature review assignment”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
 “Wikipedia in the Classroom – Interview with Dr. Alex Chow (World Christianity MTh/MSc programme)”. Media Hopper Create – The University of Edinburgh Media Platform.
About the authors
Jemima John is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law, and former Digital Skills Intern at the University. She currently works at the University of Minnesota Disability Resource Center.
Ewan McAndrew is Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Edinburgh.