Wikipedia assignments – getting past the ‘Penguin effect’ and down to the brass tacks of sharing open knowledge

By NSF/Josh Landis, employee 1999-2001 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By NSF/Josh Landis, employee 1999-2001 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The most memorable part of @osfair2017 was learning of The Penguin Effect: Waiting for someone else to ‘jump first’ to assess risks.” Jon Tennant, September 2017

The Wikimedia residency at the University of Edinburgh has supported three Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments in year one (2016/2017) in 3 very different disciplines: Reproductive Biology Hons.; Translation Studies MSc; and World Christianity MSc. These are all being repeated in year two (2017/2018) because of the positive feedback from staff and students alike along with new collaborations in three more subject disciplines. Indeed, for the educators who have decided to take the plunge, the post-assignment interviews all provide evidence that engaging with Wikipedia has a positive effect on their practice such that Wikipedia assignments are often the ones they find the most rewarding.

One summer, I read a Times Higher Education article which spoke about how some educators were using Wikipedia for course assignments. Whilst conventional assignments ‘die’ with the end of a course, the article argued that Wikipedia would give those assignments a lives of their own, growing with additional editors around the world adding updates to the article. With the help of the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian-in-residence, I was able to get students trained up to do just that. Not only were students enthralled when they saw their pages go live, they were able to gain digital learning skills and academic skills such as writing clearly and citing good sources. Even more valuable, students were now included in a process of knowledge exchange – bringing the things they were learning in the classroom out to the world around them. – Dr. Alexander Chow, Lecturer in Theology and World Christianity.

Many other educators have intimated to me that a Wikipedia assignment is one they would dearly love to try. The question has always been ‘how do I begin’?

Getting started with a Wikipedia assignment? Ask a Wikimedian.

To get started, it is helpful if you have access to a Wikimedian so the first port-of-call would be to drop Richard Nevell at Wikimedia UK an email ( to see if there is someone ‘wiki-literate’ in your area who could help. Wikimedia UK are also collating best practice at UK universities and have created a mailing list for educators in order that no educator ever works in isolation or unsupported so that each assignment builds from the experiences of the last.

Secondly, although there are instances where ambitious projects have borne fruit, it is prudent to start with a small cohort and build up. As with other assignments, consider what you would like in terms of the outcomes of the Wikipedia assignment, both in terms of the skills students are to develop and the impact on Wikipedia, and work backwards from there. A Wikimedian will advise and assist with how best to achieve your desired outcomes.

Thirdly, perform a content audit. Evaluate where you believe there is a content gap on Wikipedia (articles requiring improved or created) and weigh that against the availability of resources to help plug that gap. If your school or university has a particularly rich vein of reliable published secondary sources not currently represented on Wikipedia, it would make sense to start there. Crowdsourcing ideas from colleagues is beneficial as involving other members of staff, particularly library colleagues, often yields some unexpected suggestions in terms of the sources available. The content audit also helps with assessing the assignment’s year-on-year sustainability.

Preparing the assignment – honing in on its focus

There are a number of ways of narrowing the field. Wikipedia’s Category Tree system helps identify the taxonomy of the subject you are interested in. Further, articles on Wikipedia are looked after by WikiProjects (groups of editors with a particular interest) for example there is a WikiProject Military History, a WikiProject Biography, a WikiProject Scotland, WikiProject Archaeology and a WikiProject Novels etc.

There are over 2000 WikiProjects on Wikipedia and a simple Wikipedia search or Googling of the WikiProject you are interested in will take you to a page that:

  1. has a group of experienced Wikipedia editors listed who are already knowledgeable on the subject you are interested in working on and you can approach with questions.
  2. has a quality assessment list of articles related to that subject. Within this, you can click through to see that WikiProject’s Featured Articles (their highest quality articles) so that you have exemplars to aspire to in your subject area and also a list of all the short (stub) articles so that you can see all the hundreds of articles requiring the most improvement.

Wikidata work lists can be generated too (e.g. list of boats grouped by manufacturer) to hone in further on your particular area of interest. By identifying the properties in Wikidata you are interested in (e.g. ‘occupation’ and ‘place of education’) you can ask Wikidata questions such as ‘show me everyone who was educated in the North of England with an occupation of scientist’ and a list will be created. Generating lists such as these helps show what information Wikidata and Wikipedia currently possess and, by extension, what they are missing. You can ask Wikidata Facts for such lists to be created.

Managing the assignment

Creating an assignment page which includes your worklist of articles to create/improve will help to crystallise your plans.  For this you can choose between two platforms to manage the assignment: either the Project Page on Wikipedia itself (e.g. the 2016 Reproductive Biology assignment); or using the Programs and Events Dashboard. Both platforms are equally good. However, if you prefer not to work with the few Wiki Markup commands the Project Page requires, then the Programs and Events Dashboard is for you. (Video tutorial on the dashboard)

Dr. Simon Riley (pictured right) and fifty-one Reproductive Biology Hons. students at the University of Edinburgh researching & creating new articles on terms not currently represented on Wikipedia in Sept. 2017 (Own work, CC-BY-SA)
Dr. Simon Riley (pictured right) and fifty-one Reproductive Biology Hons. students at the University of Edinburgh researching & creating new articles on terms not currently represented on Wikipedia in Sept. 2017 (Own work, CC-BY-SA)


Leading the training – the Wikipedia editing lesson plan

At the beginning of the assignment, you should allow 1-2 hours (view an example schedule) to train your students how to navigate their way round Wikipedia’s front page, how to create and format a Wikipedia page using the new Visual Editor in addition to introducing them to Wikipedia’s main policies and guidelines. Thankfully, a step-by-step lesson plan has been developed which takes you, as the course leader, through all these elements and attendees have already commented that the Visual Editor interface is ‘easy’, ‘fun’, ‘really intuitive’ and ‘addictive as hell’.

It is helpful, although not essential, if the students also conduct some self-directed tutorials at home before they are ready to edit: either the fun Wikipedia Adventure (which takes 45-60 mins) or the easy-to-follow training tutorials on the Programs and Events Dashboard although they could just watch this 25 minute video of how to edit Wikipedia.

It is beneficial for the course leader to have gone through the lesson plan, tutorials and created a Wikipedia page themselves first. While you may want to be fully cognisant of all Wikipedia’s intricacies and foibles ahead of time, the old English teacher’s maxim of ‘being one chapter ahead of your class’ is perhaps a bit more realistic (& helpful) target for new Wiki instructors. Having in-person or email support from a Wikimedian in Residence or Wikimedia UK volunteer will help bridge that knowledge gap in the first iteration of the assignment until you feel ready to go it alone. NB: Although many have gone it alone and managed successfully, having that support in place does make life easier all round.

Drafting content in Wikipedia’s Sandbox area – your own personal draftspace

Once the pages to create/improve have been identified for your ‘worklist’ and the students are all trained up, drafting content in a Wikipedia sandbox is straightforward. The sandbox is the students’ own draft-space and no one will bother them there. Once the students have at least 100 words backed up from at least 3 reliable published secondary sources then they can transfer their drafted text from their sandbox to Wikipedia’s live-space. Only then, once it is published in the live-space, will it be reviewed. Hence, that is where the course leader and/or Wikimedian needs to do due diligence to ensure the articles are broadly in-keeping with Wikipedia’s house-style, and any tidying up needs done.

This tidying up can include:

Ideally, this tidying up and making the article discoverable will be done by the students so they can see the process through from creation to completion but discussing with a Wikimedian how best to monitor and look after newly published articles is a good approach.

Wikipedia assignments in a nutshell:

  1. Choose a platform for managing the assignment you are happy with. Either a Project Page or the Programs and Events Dashboard.
  2. Identify a focus area for the assignment i.e. create a worklist as to which articles are to be created or improved during the assignment and whether there will be enough sources to help with the research. (Crowdsourcing this process and adding the worklist to an assignment page helps).
  3. Make sure you have support for managing the assignment – either in-person or via email. Wikimedia UK can advise if there is someone local to you who could assist.
  4. Start small and build up where possible. It is worthwhile spending the extra time at the beginning of the assignment on training your students to be comfortable editing in the first instance. (1-2 hours) – see the lesson plan for more info.
  5. Ensure that time is spent at the publishing stage to tidy up the articles to give the new articles the best chance of remaining If they are well-researched, well-referenced and well-written then there should be no problem here. Again seek support from a Wikimedian if you are unsure.

Finally, while there are a number of online resources for course leaders, there are also physical booklets and other ‘swag’ materials available from Wikimedia UK which can be given to the students to help them with the process of writing of their articles but also to reward them for their efforts e.g. stickers, pens, canvas bags, mugs, badges etc.

Publishing a brand new article on Wikipedia in a real world application of teaching & learning is hugely motivating and rewarding. Reproductive Biology Hons. students at the University of Edinburgh in Sept. 2017 (Own work, CC-BY-SA)
Publishing a brand new article on Wikipedia in a real world application of teaching & learning is hugely motivating and rewarding. Reproductive Biology Hons. students at the University of Edinburgh in Sept. 2017 (Own work, CC-BY-SA)

The greatest reward

Often the greatest reward, for both course leader and student alike, is the fact that the students will have researched and published an article that communicates their scholarship beyond the confines of the classroom; which, in turn, will become a community project that many thousands can read, add to and update. That real world application of the learning they have only experienced in lectures and exams is hugely motivating and inspiring to students. So a little up-skilling in the first instance definitely yields huge rewards in the longer term. Not least in terms of developing students’ digital research skills and their ability to evaluate sources with a critical information literacy.

Don’t believe me? See the reactions from staff and students from post-assignment interviews in year one and feel free to discuss with course leaders who have run Wikipedia assignments:

“For three years now, we have been running Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments and working with our University of Edinburgh “Wikimedian-in-Residence”, currently Ewan, at the start of our final year undergraduate Honours programme in Reproductive Biology.  This experience works for us on so many levels.  

It offers insight into how Wikipedia works – the nuts and bolts!  We know that Wikipedia is a major source of information for our students, but we don’t know how critical they are when they use it.  They gain a remarkable insight into how our disciplinary literature is created and synthesised, critically reviewed, edited, published, and also searched – all in a very short time!

It also works as a teambuilding exercise, bringing together a newly formed group of students in a collaborative learning experience.  We are supporting our students to research a new topic, and create some accessible scientific writing that is [hopefully!] useful to our global community of learners.  Wikimedians enable that whole experience.  Many thanks” – Dr Simon Riley, Senior Lecturer.

“Librarians are often involved in teaching students effective literature searching skills, but this was the first time I’d done so with the purpose of writing a Wikipedia article! The skills are very much the same as a traditional literature review, and in fact Wikipedia is a fantastic example of how literature can be synthesised as evidence in an accessible way. It’s great to see the product of the students’ work, and one that lasts beyond the life of the assignment” – Ruth Jenkins, Academic Support Librarian at the University of Edinburgh.

Email if you’d like to find out more.

Did you know you can learn:

Ewan McAndrew

Ewan McAndrew is the current Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Edinburgh. A PGDE English & Media teacher for the last few years, Ewan has taught in various parts of Scotland and worked increasingly with heritage institutions, most recently with the Glasgow School of Art’s Archives team on their WW1 ‘Roll of Honour’ project.

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