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Taking Your Student from Information Searcher to Wikipedian

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

W. Gardner Campbell reminds us that in the early days of the World Wide Web, developers hoped to build a platform where information is not merely stored and searched — it would ultimately be created in an interactive, linked, and connected environment.

We can see bits of this future unfolding today. Here, CT asks Campbell about a current teaching and learning strategy in which students create and publish their own contributions to Wikipedia articles on the open Web — taking us at least one step closer to that original vision of the Web by moving our students from information searchers to true Wikipedians. Will your students experience this forward-looking education practice? Find out why it is getting much easier for faculty to make sure they will.

Mary Grush: Today, some faculty give assignments in which students contribute to Wikipedia articles on the Web. Wikipedia has long been used by students as a search resource for finding topical information, but now they are publishing on Wikipedia, as a key part of course assignments. Over time, what attracted you to this practice in your own teaching?

Gardner Campbell: Ever since I created my first Web page, way back in 1995, I've been fascinated by the idea of a "read-write Web" — that is, a Web that is not just a place for people to find information, but individually and collectively to build knowledge structures together. Those structures could be anything: movie reviews, how-to advice, fan pages for artists of all kinds, or even entire courses of study on any topic imaginable.

As I learned more about the Web, I learned that Sir Tim Berners-Lee had built the original interface for the Web to allow composing as well as reading. Connectivity and bandwidth increased over time, and around 2004 the idea of the "read-write Web" acquired a new name to recognize the scale of what had become possible: Web 2.0.

Although wikis had been invented by Ward Cunningham in the 1990s, by 2004 Wikipedia had gathered enough critical mass to bring the idea of wikis into wider circulation. Since a wiki is designed to be a collective read-write environment that records each successive revision of a document, wikis in general, and Wikipedia in particular, became an essential part of Web 2.0.

Grush: How did you finally get to the point where you ventured — undaunted, if you will — into creating assignments that would turn your students into published Wikipedians?

Campbell: As I watched Wikipedia grow over time (yes, I established my account in the early days), I could see that this technological platform had also become a fascinating culture of collaborative knowledge construction, with all the perils and promise of work inside academia combined with a greater reach across many sectors of society around the world.

I really like the way Michael Nielsen describes what Wikipedia has become: It's a metaphorical city whose primary export to the world is an encyclopedia. When you dive into the Talk pages, look at the many projects underway, and examine the many policies for article writing and evaluation, you begin to get a feel for the truth of Nielsen's observation.

Wikipedia is a uniquely valuable demonstration of what's possible using networked computing.

If you go further and look at the many detailed user pages assembled by truly devoted Wikipedians, and find very moving sites like the pages devoted to deceased Wikipedians, you can understand how Wikipedia is a uniquely valuable demonstration of what's possible using networked computing.

Put all that together with the idea of students publishing their work to the Web, which I'd been experimenting with since 1997, and the growing importance and stature of Wikipedia worldwide, and you've got a great set of opportunities.

But it was only when I saw what Wiki Education had built as a platform to support the work of faculty and students inside Wikipedia that I could imagine how work in Wikipedia could be fully integrated into my courses in ways that supported individual projects as well as course-wide goals. There are tutorials for faculty, tutorials for students, and dashboards for faculty to assign articles and monitor student progress — with a set of timelines to aid in planning and in keeping students on track. 

I was impressed by the care and thoughtfulness that I could see in every aspect of Wiki Education's materials, and especially in their use of the Web, the medium that makes all of this possible. So I went to https://wikiedu.org/teach-with-wikipedia/, read the page, followed some links to additional materials including faculty testimonials, and began my work by clicking on the big button that said "I'm ready to start!"

Every step of the way after that initial click, I received thorough, friendly, and insightful guidance from the Wiki Education staff. Everything I created using their resources could be revised to my satisfaction. Every aspect reflected my own decisions as a scholar and a teacher, informed by the guidance and experience of the staff and the stories of other faculty who had also done this work. Even if I had decided not to incorporate Wikipedia into my courses, I would have been delighted with all I'd learned from Wiki Education. But seeing what was possible and thinking about how I'd use this opportunity in my own teaching, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to try.

Grush: What evolved over time? How are your students using Wikipedia now for their class assignments? Could you give me one or two examples?

Campbell: I've now used Wiki Education's resources in two very different courses, one in mythology and folklore and one in the theory and form of poetry. In each case, I wanted students to have an opportunity to pursue their own individual interests and projects in the context what we were learning together. These were relatively small classes of 35 and 20, respectively, but I could not have managed the work without the resources provided by Wiki Education. (Have I mentioned yet that all these resources are completely free of charge? Astounding!)

Incorporating Wikipedia within what I call my learning "ecosystem" offers me a uniquely powerful way to achieve my goals as a professor.

In both classes, the Wikipedia assignment, using Wiki Education's resources, unleashed a wide variety and bracing depth of student interests. Work in the mythology and folklore course ranged from an article on the "Hero's Journey" to separate articles on Bluebeard, Krampus, liminality, and Medusa. One student became so obsessed with Celtic mythology that she contributed to three separate articles: Oisin, Irish Mythology, and Tir na nOg. In the poetry class, students created or contributed to articles on individual poems by authors ranging from Thomas Campion to Ann Sexton, from Emily Dickinson to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In my courses, I always try to encourage the formation of a community of learners who use our shared learning in each class to inform work they can do on their own, beyond the boundaries of individual class meetings and the four walls of the classroom. I want students to own their learning and to experience freedom of inquiry within the focus of a particular syllabus and specific assignments. Incorporating Wikipedia within what I call my learning "ecosystem" offers me a uniquely powerful way to achieve my goals as a professor.

Not every student rose to the challenge, but most did, and their reflections on their projects testified to how much they had learned about their topics, about the university library and its resources, and about how to work on the Web effectively. Many of them said they were astonished by the care and commitment they saw among the many contributors to Wikipedia. They had all used Wikipedia, but before the course they had not realized either the scope of its accomplishment or its continuing promise as evidence of human beings working together to create and share knowledge. I believe they all emerged from the experience not only with greater knowledge of their topic, but with a greater confidence in and commitment to their own digital fluency. 

Grush: What are some of the most important things that you can achieve in your teaching by using this strategy? Are there a couple stories you'd care to share that could give us a sense of this?

Campbell: It's vitally important that students have sustained practice in all sorts of writing. In addition to critical essays and original research, students need practice in assembling facts, assessing expertise, and writing clear, interesting, accessible prose — a kind of public, factual, verifiable, compelling communication that differs from office writing or essay writing. Wikipedia writing is all of that. Journalism is probably the closest cousin, but Wikipedia reportage is more like journalism about civilization itself, in all its facets.

To write for Wikipedia, students must read widely in a variety of sources, all the while assessing their reliability as well as situating the sources within cultural and historical contexts. Students must learn to ask the question, "What do we think we know about x?"; followed closely by the question, "Are there other expert viewpoints and findings?"; accompanied by the question, "How have these experts done their work, and to what end?"

This is part intellectual history, part reference library digging, part journalism: Students encounter many writerly roles in Wikipedia writing that they do not encounter elsewhere, or at least not in this combination or with this potential audience. Among many other things, they begin to understand that the library is not just a place to find a few sources to back up an argument. Instead, they find that the library documents, preserves, and circulates the vast conversations and learnings from our species, and that the stacks are full of voices in just the way they experience multiple voices in the online world.

The student who did the "Hero's Journey" work told the story of sitting in the stacks surrounded by volumes of anthropology and mythology. The student who worked on the Mary Oliver poem "In Blackwater Woods" took an excursion through the history and culture of American Primitive art. Every student who digs in to the assignment finds themselves moving between big picture and close-up work, one moment surveying centuries and the next moment examining manuscript images.

Wikipedia offers students a dazzling glimpse of the wider conversation around human experience, and an opportunity to bring their learning to that community to benefit a greater good.

Students also — and this is crucial — have to think hard about how they want to organize the material they contribute to their article. They have to learn how to write or improve a great introductory paragraph that will hook the reader and lead them into the deeper parts to follow. They have to think about how to arrange context, when to introduce background material, and when to link to other Wikipedia articles. Not all of them learn these things, and no one learns it all in one semester. At its best, working with Wikipedia offers students a dazzling glimpse of the wider conversation around human experience, and an opportunity to bring their learning to that community to benefit a greater good.

Grush: Are there any habits that students acquire from their experiences with Wikipedia in your classes that you find particularly applicable to students' work beyond your class? Do you think they will carry all this forward in their lives?

Campbell: Indeed yes. As one example: Many scholars are a little contemptuous of Wikipedia's NPOV policy, which stands for Neutral Point Of View. Especially in the humanities, orthodox thinking will usually emphasize that no one speaks from a neutral point of view. Some will go so far as to say there are no possible objective standards by which to recognize a neutral point of view, let alone inhabit one.

Yet most people seem to understand the concept of fairness, and the desirability of advancing knowledge in good faith, without a hidden agenda. Wikipedia's NPOV policy is about fairness and good faith. Wikipedia wants its material to be verifiable and not a covert attempt to favor one side or the other in any specific instance. Students in a democracy need to be sophisticated and to understand the strategies of persuasion and deception that surround them. At the same time, however, students need to have the experience of writing in good faith, as neutrally and fairly as possible, in the service of informing their fellow human beings of what we know about the world, and how. I have many hopes for this work, but high among them is the hope that students will come away from Wikipedia feeling less cynical about their fellow human beings, and more hopeful about the possibilities of working with others toward the common good.

I also hope they learn how much "fun" it can be to geek out within the information resources of a contemporary university, and with other learners who are doing the same thing. It's a very rich experience, one that all too many of them may not find again in their working lives — though of course with Wikipedia, they can always find that environment once again, any time they go back to do more editing.

I should also say that students are delighted when their work is not only welcomed by fellow Wikipedians around the world, but immediately assessed and improved upon. They begin to understand what all writers come to know: that careful, expert attention and thoughtful editing are things to cherish.

Students are delighted when their work is not only welcomed by fellow Wikipedians around the world, but immediately assessed and improved upon.

Grush: You've indicated that Wiki Education was very supportive as you ventured into the practice of giving students the assignment to create or contribute to a Wikipedia article — could you tell me a bit more about Wiki Education?

Campbell: I can't say enough good things about Wiki Education. Every faculty member who works with them has a liaison. Students also have a liaison. In both cases, these liaisons ease the load for both faculty and students and help to make the experience of working in Wikipedia a lot more effective and fun. As with any new experience, there's a learning curve, but the support of Wiki Education makes the learning clear, accessible, and reliable throughout. They even have specific training modules and assistance for people working on very sensitive topics related to mental illness, health care, and others.

I've already discussed the Web-based "dashboard" Wiki Education provides to help faculty and students organize and track their work. It's the HQ for everything you need to administer the assignments. Students can communicate with their liaison, peer review each other's articles, and track their own progress. Faculty can see how the class is doing, who hasn't yet completed the training materials, how the student "sandboxes" are coming along, and so forth. ["Sandboxes" are wiki pages where students can do their work before moving in to editing an actual Wikipedia page.]

All of these affordances, all of this guidance, all of these resources are completely free of charge.

Grush: Do you have a sense of the extent to which faculty at other institutions around the world are incorporating Wikipedia in their teaching? Do you think Wiki Education is having a large impact on that?

Campbell: I see some impressive statistics coming out of Wiki Education. You can too, at https://dashboard.wikiedu.org. Here are some figures to suggest the extent of their accomplishment: Since 2010, Wiki Education has worked with 2,800 courses including 58,000 students. These students have contributed 53 million words to 75,000 articles. And because Wikipedia is such a widely-consulted global information resource, these articles attract hundreds of millions of views in a single semester. In fact, the Wiki Education dashboard shows students how many people have viewed the article they're working on since they began their work. When students see these numbers, they're inspired to do their very best work, knowing that their work will reach a vast audience and that those readers will rely on the quality of their contributions.

Grush: Do you have any more advice for faculty who might want to try, for the first time, including Wikipedia authoring in their assignments? What resources might help them?

Campbell: It's easy to get started. Just go to wikiedu.org and start reading. They have some helpful videos there as well. Be sure to pay attention to the "news" and "impact" sections to read about work done by fellow faculty all over the world. It's inspiring stuff and full of practical suggestions for how to proceed. 

Most of all, take that first step and click on the button to get started teaching with Wikipedia. You'll be asked several questions. Put in your best guess at the moment. You have to start somewhere! Folks from Wiki Education will contact you shortly, and you'll be on your way to exploring the options and deciding how you'd like to proceed. 

Note that Wiki Education can accommodate small projects as well as large ones. It's all up to you.

Grush: Are there ways that Wikipedia might be important in shaping the future of education?

Wikipedia continues to be a beacon of hope that human beings can learn and work together peacefully and constructively on the vast and complex communications platform we call the Internet. That hope is one that the Internet was founded on.

Campbell: Right now higher education seems to feel a great tension between the ideas of education as strengthening powers of mind and education as workforce preparation that fuels economic engines. Working with Wikipedia addresses both of these goals. Even more importantly, Wikipedia continues to be a beacon of hope that human beings can learn and work together peacefully and constructively on the vast and complex communications platform we call the Internet. That hope is one that the Internet was founded on. Wikipedia demonstrates that the hope need not be in vain. And Wiki Education makes it possible for students to contribute hopefully to the greater good, learn important research and writing skills, and become more digitally fluent while doing so. That's quite a combination.

[Editor's note: Gardner Campbell wrote a recent post for Wiki Education detailing his pedagogy as well as student responses to the assignments.]


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