Wikipedia as Learning Technology: Teaching Knowledge Activism vs Passive Consumption

Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

In this post, 4th year Classics student Hannah Rothmann describes the work of the University’s  Wikimedian in Residence, how Wikipedia is an instrumental step for many students in their learning and the relationship between the University and Wikimedia UK in improving knowledge exchange…

Wikipedia is sometimes viewed warily by academics and teachers (see this article for an argument of greater understanding of media and how to use the internet). From school through to the start of my undergraduate degree I have been warned away from Wikipedia as it is called untrustworthy, not academic enough and it must be avoided! Many of these warnings have fallen on deaf ears as most students I know acknowledge that they use Wikipedia in some way in their research or learning. A study by Selwyn found that 87.5% of students in 2016 used Wikipedia for their academic work and also highlighted that many used it for an ‘introductory and/or clarificatory role’. Universities and education systems need to acknowledge that Wikipedia is an instrumental step for many students in their learning and need to recognise that it is not this big, bad wolf leading their students astray.

The University of Edinburgh is aware of this importance and it was the first university in the UK to employ a university-wide Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew. What is a Wikimedian in Residence? This is someone who works within the university “to facilitate a sustainable relationship between the University and Wikimedia UK to the mutual benefit of both communities through improving knowledge exchange.” Open and accessible knowledge is the goal of this residency. Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the Wikimedia foundation, a 100% donation funded charitable organisation that oversees projects such as Wikipedia, Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons and Wikibooks.

Increasing engagement with and representation of marginalised people and subjects is one of Wikimedia UK’s strategic aims for 2019-2022 and there have been efforts to address gender imbalance, representation of the Black Lives Matter movement and whether Wikipedia can be involved in decolonising the curriculum. For example, WikiProject: Black Lives Matter ‘is a collaborative effort to improve the coverage of Black Lives Matter on Wikipedia’ and it has been running monthly editathons to achieve their goal (this is the current page for August). The efforts of a different group, WikiProject Women in Red, has meant that the percentage of English Wikipedia’s biographies that are about women has increased from 15.53% in October 2014 to 18.54% as of 4th August 2020. Both of these projects show the important role Wikipedia can play in terms of social activism and why it is important for it to be included in education.

A new booklet of case studies

Wikimedia UK and the University of Edinburgh recently joined forces to complete a booklet of case studies of Wikimedia in UK education, which explains how you can teach with Wikipedia and gives 14 examples of where this has been successful. Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal Online Learning, University of Edinburgh, is quoted saying:

We will enrich Wikipedia content with our research collections and expand the range of knowledge covered. We will contribute not only our research to Wikipedia but do research with and about Wikipedia. We will use the data sets being shared and study how the work of knowledge sharing and gathering is conducted.

This has been proved to be true so far as in the first four years of a focus on Wikipedia and Wikimedia there have been 224 training session, 92 editathons and impressively 1,151 students, 519 staff and 474 members of the public have been trained. Importantly, these training sessions are able to be delivered in person and online and this is significant in this new era of learning that we are facing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, working with the PG Cert Global Health Challenges in groups on improving short stub articles about natural and man-made disasters and on the Digital Education MSc writing a new up-to-date page on Information literacies. During this time, Wikipedia has had a surge of page views and has become a crucial source of information for people around the world and for home working and schooling. For example, the English-language page for Covid-19 had more than 73 million page views by July 30th 2020 and there were more than 5,200 new Wikipedia pages on Covid-19 in the first few months of the pandemic.These statistics show how important Wikipedia is for people as a source of information during this time.

The key Wikimedia projects for teachers are Wikipedia, Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons and Wikibooks. These projects ensure that information, for example within medicine and science, is more accessible and this access could, potentially, be life changing. Working with Professor Devi Sridhar and Dr Felix Stein, students on the Masters in Public Health (MPH) added, improved or created new content for Global Health related articles and showed how crucial it is to make medicine and information on global health more accessible with a new study concluding that enriching Wikipedia content is a “powerful way to improve health literacy”. For example, edits to pages including obesity, are now viewed 3,000 times a day on average.

The Design Informatics MA/MFA utilised Wikidata, Wikipedia’s sister project, and used the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft data project as an engaging, practical way for students to learn about data science. In the course, students imported data on Scotland’s accused witches and witch trials. This had a significant impact beyond the classroom as 3,219 unique items of machine-readable linked open data for each accused witch in Scotland from 1563-1736 were inputted onto Wikidata as well as data for each individual (2,356 in total) who was involved in trying the accused witches. Once co-ordinate locations were added, students in later iterations of the project laser cut an A1-sized wooden map showing the locations, gender and types of torture employed on accused witches in Scotland as part of their learning. This shows how data can be translated into something readable and recognisable by all.

Further examples of Wikipedia being used in learning include the World Christianity MSc, where students create Wikipedia new pages as part of a literature review assignment, and the Translation Studies MSc, where students translate 1,500-2000 words from high quality articles in one language Wikipedia and publish to another language Wikipedia. This is a meaningful and motivating demonstration of their teaching and learning.

These case studies demonstrate the multitude of ways that Wikipedia, and its Wikimedia sister projects, can aid learning, digital skills and make knowledge more widely accessible.

The booklet can be found here and you can contact Ewan McAndrew ( or Wikimedia UK if you have any questions, want to get more involved in Wikimedia or be supported in running your own Wikipedia assignments!

further reading

Covid-19 research in Wikipedia by Giovanni Colavizza, University of Amsterdam

Hannah Rothmann

Hannah Rothmann is a 4th year Classics student (as of September 2020) at the University of Edinburgh. Currently, I am the Wikimedia Training Intern (June-September 2020) and I am working on developing training materials for new users of Wikipedia and Wikidata.

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