Wiki Wednesday Guest Post: Eryk Salvaggio of Wikipedia Education Program

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Welcome back to Wiki Wednesday! As part of the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative’s current focus on activism in online spaces, we’re dedicating a series of Wiki Wednesday posts to interrogating Wikipedia as a site for making, sharing, and circulating meaning. We’ve already shared a few posts that work toward this focus. Heather Lang’s recent reflection on some of the obstacles she faced as a female graduate student trying to adapt to the culture of Wikipedia kicked off our series, and I followed up a few weeks ago with a post about how Wikipedia’s adherence to print culture limits the types of knowledge it can represent. At this point in the series, however, we wanted to give at least one part of the Wikipedia community, the Wikipedia Education Program, a chance to speak up about their efforts to work with students to continue to improve (and diversify) the encyclopedia. The following is a guest post by Eryk Salvaggio, Communications Associate for the Wiki Education Foundation. Salvaggio introduces the Education program while also describing how it can inform digital rhetoric pedagogy and help to make the encyclopedia a more diverse and inclusive environment. Special thanks to Eryk for sharing this with us and to Jami Mathewson for reaching out in the first place!

Introducing the Wikipedia Education Program

Eryk Salvaggio in the Presidio, 2014-10-02

Eryk Salvaggio

Ask any first-year student what they think of Wikipedia. They’re likely to tell you what their high school teachers have said: Steer clear. But there’s a pretty good chance – a 52 percent chance, in fact – that they’re using it anyway. Usually, students go to Wikipedia as a starting point to find good sources [1].

Many students have an intuitive understanding of how Wikipedia is built. But few ever experience the power of contributing to Wikipedia, which turns that experience on its head.

The assignment is a pretty simple one. Students create or expand Wikipedia articles that align with course topics. Instead of writing a paper that ends up in a desk drawer, they write for Wikipedia. Their writing lives beyond the term, enriching a free-knowledge resource for millions of people. That’s a powerful and authentic writing experience. It’s also a boon to digital and information literacy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of research methods.

Something else happens. Student editors know they’re contributing to a source of knowledge read around the world. Wikipedia writing assignments encourage students to weigh the information that they contribute. They also develop the skills to evaluate the information that’s already there.

In a way, editing Wikipedia becomes a form of play. Thomas Leitch suggests that Wikipedia assignments are practice for the mastery of knowledge [2]. Students are taught in a classroom, but they can exercise it, test it, and refine it through Wikipedia.

This folds perfectly into digital rhetoric courses. The “play” on Wikipedia is a smaller version of the public sphere. The collaboration behind every article is real discourse, and it shapes real knowledge.

Wikipedia and the Gender Gap

A case in point: Nearly 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are men [3]. A majority of articles exist in topic areas of interest to men, such as military history or professional wrestling.

Articles about women, or of interest to women, aren’t nearly as well represented. That’s the gender gap. To meet the goal of representing “the sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia needs to grow.

Wikipedia writing assignments can help. When professors direct their courses toward closing content gaps, it makes a difference. Last fall, 68 percent of the student editors we supported were women. We saw more than 175 articles that helped narrow the gender gap (here’s one great example. [4]). Topics created or expanded by student editors include birth control, gender inequality, maternity leave, feminism, pregnancy risks in developing countries, refugee status of women, sex work, and the women’s role in the Arab Spring — all topics that languished for years, and have since been viewed more than 350,000 times.

While we’ve seen great contributions to Wikipedia content tackling gaps in gender[5], race [6], and class [7], there’s still a lot of work to do to diversify Wikipedia. Wiki Ed is dedicated to improving and expanding Wikipedia through quality contributions that bridge content gaps. We believe student editors are a natural ally.

In fact, we asked them.

Alicia Pileggi at Richard Stockton College shared that sentiment. She created the Wikipedia article on Feminist Digital Humanities [8]. She told us: “Without diverse representation in the editing community, there is a tendency for this gap to be reflected in an under-representation of a large group of people and concerns in the articles. This is exactly what Feminist Digital Humanities addresses and looks to repair. So by just taking the time to edit Wikipedia, you can be a part of Feminist Digital Humanities efforts.”

Wikipedia assignments challenge student editors to test their assumptions of knowledge. They learn to question who contributes to that knowledge, and why. The assignment starts with a gap. By finding what isn’t being said, students not only critique Wikipedia as a knowledge authority, but practice exercising their own authority. They participate in knowledge production, shaping Wikipedia around their research. They engage in critical thinking about the validity and usefulness of their own sources. Finally, they write, for an audience far beyond the classroom.

The assignment sparks an intrinsic motivation to make a meaningful contribution to the world. It creates a deeper commitment to accuracy, thoughtful presentation of their research, and clear communication skills.

“I was encouraged by more than the grade,” Northeastern University student Anna Glina wrote of her Wikipedia assignment. “I wanted to contribute to something long-lasting, and something bigger than myself. So much gratification came, not only from adding sentences of text to ‘my’ article, but linking names, places, and concepts I discovered through my research to those already existing on Wikipedia. I saw my work filling in gaps in the ecosystem of knowledge, and that was the greatest reward of the experience overall.”

As Char Booth [9] wrote of Wikipedia writing assignments, “There’s a vulnerability … which any author can relate to — a sense of opening yourself to scrutiny and a need to understand all of the responsibilities that dynamic creates. And in terms of motivation, it’s much harder to half-ass when the world is watching.”

Getting involved

We’ve shown how Wikipedia assignments serve a variety of goals. It challenges and motivates students, inspires critical thinking, and targets gaps in Wikipedia’s content. That’s why Wiki Ed supports instructors who teach with Wikipedia.

We offer staff time, online training, paper handouts, and a customizable syllabus to instructors with any level of Wikipedia editing experience. All we ask for is a curiosity and a willingness to learn. We have experienced Wikipedians who will help guide your students at each stage.

The online training helps students get started on the right track. The training guides students through basic technical skills and the Wikipedia editing community.

We offer a training for instructors, too. We have a simple Assignment Design Wizard to create a flexible syllabus. We help create course pages that track students’ progress.

We love highlighting the amazing work of student editors and courses at http://www.wikiedu.org/blog.

If you’re interested in creating a Wikipedia-based writing, translation, or photo assignment, do get in touch with us: contact@wikiedu.org.

References

About Author(s)

VIsiting Assistant Professor of English at Ohio University Zanesville, Matthew Vetter earned his PhD from Ohio University in 2015, where he previously served as Assistant Director of Composition. His research and professional interests include digital rhetoric and humanities, writing program administration, and composition pedagogy. Vetter is a former Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Graduate Fellow and current editor of PraxisWiki, a section of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Check out his portfolio at mattvetter.net

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