Wikipedia: Learning by sharing knowledge

The second in our series of guest posts come from Jisc Wikimedian Ambassador Martin Poulter, who takes a look at why using Wikipedia in education is important.

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Librarians collaborated with Wikipedians old and new to improve articles related to Multnomah County, Oregon.

Billions of people around the world crave education, but lack the resources we take for granted. Adequate libraries and current textbooks are out of their reach, but they are increasingly getting internet access. Meanwhile, every day in universities and schools, talented students are writing essays, then handing them in to be read by a tutor who already knows the topic, to be marked and eventually thrown away. If only that student work could be put into a free, multilingual, knowledge-sharing space.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is part of a charitable project to give everyone on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge. This takes enormous effort from tens of thousands of volunteer editors, and after thirteen years it is still very much a work in progress. In many areas, Wikipedia has a real need for decent, well-written content.

In writing an online encyclopedia, the Wikipedia community needs people to:

  • choose and evaluate sources
  • represent sources with the right amount of relative weight;
  • structure information clearly to convey what is known about that topic;
  • write neutrally without bringing in subjective interpretations and opinions;
  • write in an original way to avoid plagiarism;
  • write accessibly for the widest audience;
  • check grammar and wording;
  • illustrate by finding, creating, or adapting images;
  • review articles against quality criteria;
  • and to discuss and justify these choices with people who may have a different perspective.

So there are research, textual, social and even legal skills involved in being a Wikipedian. Users do not need all these skills from the outset, but can start small and develop them by interacting with the community.

These look very like the skills that we try to develop and sharpen in degree-level education. That is why, in education systems around the world, hundreds of academics have set their students to improve, critique, translate, or illustrate Wikipedia articles. Articles such as Dictator novel, Implicit self-esteem and Nuclear energy policy in the United States have become rich and informative through student involvement.

Writing for the world, rather than just for one’s tutor, is potentially very motivating. It also risks ‘stage fright’. The course and assessment need to be structured to ensure learners are comfortable with Wikipedia’s norms and prepared to make the right sort of contributions.

Many lecturers and teachers are still suspicious of Wikipedia and (in vain) tell students to avoid it altogether. They see it purely as a reference resource. Seeing it as an educational process or as a knowledge-sharing community gives a different perspective: A poor Wikipedia article offers an opportunity to create active – and in some cases extremely rewarding – experiences for learners, while improving the world’s access to free educational material.

The US-based Wikimedia Foundation  has some case studies from educators and here in the UK there is an index of education projects that may provide inspiration and guidance.

Martin Poulter, based at the University of Bristol, is the Jisc Wikimedia Ambassador (funded by Jisc and Wikimedia UK) from July 2013 to March 2014. He edits on Wikipedia as User:MartinPoulter.