How College Students Are Improving Wikipedia

By LiAnna Davis

Maidstone 22/04/2018 books in Leeds castle library

You probably use Wikipedia regularly, maybe even every day. It’s where the world goes to learn more about almost anything, do a quick fact-check or get lost in an endless stream of link clicking. But have you ever stopped to think about the people behind the information you’re reading on Wikipedia? Or how their perspectives may inform what’s covered—and what’s not?

All content to Wikipedia is added and edited in a crowdsourced model, wherein nearly anyone can click the “edit” button and change content on Wikipedia. An active community of dedicated volunteers adds content and monitors the edits made by others, following a complex series of policies and guidelines that have been developed in the 21 years since Wikipedia started. This active community is what keeps Wikipedia as reliable as it is today—good, but not complete. More diverse contributors are needed to add more content to Wikipedia.

Some of that information has been added by college students from New England, written as a class assignment. Wiki Education, a small nonprofit, runs a program called the Wikipedia Student Program, in which we support college and university faculty who want to assign their students to write Wikipedia articles as part of their coursework.

Why do instructors assign their students to edit Wikipedia as a course assignment? Research shows a Wikipedia assignment increases motivation for students, while providing them learning objectives like critical thinking, research, writing for a public audience, evaluating and synthesizing sources and peer review. Especially important in today’s climate of misinformation and disinformation is the critical digital media literacy skills students gain from writing for Wikipedia, where they’re asked to consider and evaluate the reliability of the sources they’re citing. In addition to the benefits to student learning outcomes, instructors are also glad to see Wikipedia’s coverage of their discipline get better. And it does get better; studies such as this and this and this have shown the quality of content students add to Wikipedia is high.

Since 2010, more than 5,100 courses have participated in the program and more than 102,000 student editors have added more than 85 million words to Wikipedia. That’s 292,000 printed pages or the equivalent of 62 volumes of a printed encyclopedia. To put that in context, the last print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica had only 32 volumes. That means Wikipedia Student Program participants have added nearly twice as much content as was in Britannica.

Students add to body of knowledge

It’s easy to think of Wikipedia as fairly complete if it gives you the answer you seek most of the time. But the ability for student editors to add those 85 million words exposes this assumption as false. Let’s examine some examples.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the public’s interest in vaccines and therapeutics has skyrocketed. Thanks to a Boston University School of Medicine student in Benjamin Wolozin’s Systems Pharmacology class in fall 2021, the article on reverse pharmacology has been overhauled. Before the student started working on it, the article was what’s known on Wikipedia as a stub—a short, incomplete article. Today, thanks to Dr. Wolozin’s student adding a dramatic 17,000 words to the article, it’s a comprehensive description of hypothesis-driven drug discovery.

Medical content is popular on Wikipedia. In fact, Wikipedia’s medical articles get more pageviews than the websites for the National Institutes of Health, WebMD, Mayo Clinic, the National Health Service of the U.K., the World Health Organization and UpToDate.

Student editors in Mary Mahoney’s History of Medicine class at Connecticut’s Trinity College improved a number of medical articles, including those on pediatrics, telehealth, pregnancy and Mary Mallon (better known as Typhoid Mary), to name just a few. In the handful of months since students improved these articles, they’ve been viewed more than 932,000 times. As many tenured professors who’ve taught with Wikipedia note, more people will read the outcomes of student work from their Wikipedia assignments than will read an entire corpus of academic publications.

Sometimes their work adds cultural relevance to existing articles. Take Gwen Kordonowy’s “Public Writing” course at Boston University. Before one of her students expanded the article on Xiangsheng, the traditional Chinese performance art, it covered Xiangsheng in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia—but not in North America. The student added a section on Xiangsheng in North America, noting famous Canadian and American performers.

Many students study Dante’s Divine Comedy as part of their schoolwork, but have you considered the women Dante references? Until Wellesley College’s “Dante’s Divine Comedy” class started working on their Wikipedia articles, you may not have been able to learn much more. The course, taught by Laura Ingallinella, focused on highlighting the women Dante referenced and improving their articles.

Diversifying perspectives

The Wellesley College example is a good one because it’s indicative of a larger challenge of gaps within Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s existing editor base is relatively homogenous: In Northern America, the diversity demographics are grim. Only 22% of Wikipedia contributors are women, which directly correlates to content gaps like the ones the Dante class tackled. The race and ethnicity gaps are even worse. Recent survey data revealed 89% of U.S. Wikipedia content contributors identify as white.

With an overwhelmingly white, male editor base, content coverage and perspectives can get skewed. That’s where Wiki Education’s work comes in. By empowering a diverse group of college students, the program is able to help shift Wikipedia’s contributor demographics. In Wiki Education’s programs, 67% of participants identify as women, and an additional 3% identify as non-binary or another gender identity. And only 55% of Wiki Education’s program participants identify as white.

By empowering higher education students to address Wikipedia’s content gaps as class assignments, Wiki Education is helping to diversify the contributors to Wikipedia too. Wikipedia’s mission—to collect the sum of all human knowledge—requires participation from a diverse population of participants. Initiatives like the ones run by Wiki Education are key to helping achieve that vision.

When we support higher education students to contribute their knowledge, the story told by Wikipedia becomes more accurate, representative and complete.

LiAnna Davis is chief programs officer at Wiki Education.




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