In previous posts, I argued for the benefits of having students edit or write Wikipedia articles for university credit. But if “anyone can edit,” doesn’t that make Wikipedia prone to errors, questionable content, edit wars, and vandalism? Well, yes—these things comprise Wikipedia’s dark side and can compromise efforts at using Wikipedia for student learning. For example, Sivan Lerer, mentioned in my first post, found that when her students edited Bahá’í articles that already had substantial content, they “had a difficult time merging what they wanted with what it said in the entry,” resulting in other Wikipedians undoing their edits. But even this phenomenon can be turned into experiential learning. In “Using Wikipedia to Teach Audience, Genre and Collaboration,” Allan Bilansky, who uses Wikipedia in his social informatics course, says that “an informed effort at making contributions that persist within a large community … can be an experience at being answerable to a real audience.” Responding to a student who reported that he “had made a change [to a Wikipedia article], and then it changed back,” Bilansky told the student, “it did not change back;” rather, “[s]omeone changed it back, probably for reasons we can eventually understand.”
In both theory and practice, though, Wikipedia isn’t the freewheeling editing environment that you might think it is. Wikipedia adheres to some key principles, called the five pillars: (i) Wikipedia is an encyclopedia—not a blogging forum, a social networking site, a place to publish original research, or a dictionary (but see its companion lexical project, Wiktionary); (ii) articles adopt a neutral point of view, which includes “document[ing] and explain[ing] the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone;” (iii) Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute, so anything that smacks of using Wikipedia for commercial gain attracts censure; (iv) Wikipedia has a code of conduct, or “Wikiquette,” that requires editors to treat each other with civility; and (v) Wikipedia has no firm rules, which means that “principles and spirit matter more than literal wording, and sometimes improving Wikipedia requires making exceptions.”
These principles are fleshed out in specific policies and practices. For example, a Wikipedia article should abide by three core content policies: neutral point of view (NPOV), verifiability (V), and no original research (NOR). Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, after all, which means that it is entirely derivative from other works. Thus, Wikipedians are alert to articles or edits that lack citations to reliable, published sources. Not uncommonly, articles are peppered with “citation needed” admonitions inserted by watchful Wikipedians, or prefaced by warnings that the article may violate NPOV, V, or NOR and be a candidate for deletion. Yet the civility principle means that Wikipedians must be judicious with deletions or other edits. This exhortation takes practical shape in the form of rules like the “three-revert rule”: an editor may not make more than three reversions to an article on a single page—whether involving the same or different material—within a 24-hour period.
To help students imbibe these principles and rules, Bilansky created some innovative assignments for his social informatics course. For example, the first assignment required students to read the View History pages (also called page history, revision history or edit history) and Talk pages (also called discussion pages) of Wikipedia articles. Every article has these pages, though most users are probably only faintly aware of them. The page history lists all the article’s previous revisions, including date and time (in UTC) of each edit, the editor’s registered username or IP address, and the user’s edit summary. As Bilansky explains, these features amount to a sort of variorum edition of each article: not only do they preserve every contributor’s minutest work and let you compare two different versions, they also provide opportunities for learning about collaborative writing processes and academic research standards.
The first thing that each of Bilansky’s students had to do was find a Wikipedia article with at least one edit that didn’t persist (that is, changes made by one editor were reverted by another), review the version history, and post to a class discussion thread an explanation of why the edits they examined were undone. (Finding such an article merely requires searching for the word reverted in the revision history.) Bilansky offered prizes for the first student to find a Wikipedia policy cited on a Talk page, which created quite a buzz and an interest in finding more strange-sounding policies or prohibitions, like the endearingly named “sock puppetry” (using multiple user accounts to hide one’s tracks). All this preparatory work smoothed the way for more complex assignments, resulting in engagement on Talk pages and in some cases, collaboration with senior Wikipedia editors (all volunteers—the whole encyclopedia is a volunteer effort) who helped the students navigate their way through what can seem like terra incognita.
I will return to the theme of Wikipedia’s integrity, because there is a lot to say about it. But in my next post, I will consider another critique of Wikipedia—its documented male bias—and what instructors and students are doing about it.
John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621