Wikipedia in the Classroom: developing information literacy, online citizenship and digital research skills

iStock [exdez]
iStock [exdez]
With about 17 billion pageviews every month, it’s safe to say that most of us have heard of Wikipedia and maybe even use it on a regular basis. Yet, negative perceptions about Wikipedia’s reliability have often led educators to tell their students not to use it.

Too many students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.” (Boyd, 2017)

Providing guidance on how best to use and evaluate both of these information resources is critical for any 21st century approach to information literacy and research skills. Hence, providing an informed understanding of Wikipedia and demystifying how it works has been a core part of the residency.

For instance, Wikipedia holds, as its central tenets, principles of verifiability, neutral point of view, and transparency above all else. This transparency is an implicit promise of trust to its users that everything on it can be checked, challenged and corrected.

What underlies Wikipedia, at its very heart, is this fundamental idea that more people want to good than harm, more people want to create knowledge than destroy, more people want to share than contain. At its core Wikipedia is about human generosity.” (Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation)

This idea that more people want to good than harm has also been borne out by researchers who found that only seven percent of edits could be considered vandalism. Similarly, a study published in 2014 in PLOS ONE found that Wikipedia’s information about pharmacology was 99.7% accurate when compared to a pharmacology textbook, and that the completeness of such information on Wikipedia was 83.8%.

Spy Week edit-a-thon By Mihaela Bodlovic ( [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Spy Week edit-a-thon. By Mihaela Bodlovic [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Regardless of whether it is a news article, journal article or a Wikipedia article, one should always evaluate what one reads. That much has always been true and this is exactly what we have encouraged staff and students to do over the course of the residency; critically evaluating existing content on Wikipedia and applying academic rigour to create new and improved articles.

Over the course of the last sixteen months, staff and students at the University of Edinburgh have contributed to over a thousand articles, backing facts up with citations from reliable published secondary sources.  In doing so, they have shared their scholarship with the world in a way that endures beyond the confines of the classroom and helped deliver the University’s mission in the process.

Don’t cite Wikipedia, write Wikipedia.

Translation Studies MSc students have gained meaningful published practice through completing the translation of a Wikipedia article of at least 4000 words into a different language Wikipedia in semester one. They then repeated the assignment in semester two; translating in the reverse direction so that the knowledge shared was truly a two-way exchange. Case study (video) (student feedback)

“It is very fun but challenging at the same time. I feel like I am doing something very meaningful. It not only helps me with my translation skills, but also makes me feel that I am contributing to Wikipedia, to people, to the society.“ Student feedback.

World Christianity MSc – Women and Religion editathon By Alexander Chow (The University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ]
World Christianity MSc – Women and Religion editathon. By Alexander Chow [CC BY-SA 4.0 ]
World Christianity MSc students undertook an 11-week Wikipedia assignment as part of the ‘Selected Themes in the Study of World Christianity’ class. This core course offers candidates the opportunity to study in depth Christian history, thought and practice in and from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The assignment comprised of writing a new article, following a literature review, on a World Christianity term hitherto unrepresented on Wikipedia. (Case study) (blogpost) (video interviews).

When you hand in an essay the only people that generally read it are you and your lecturer. And then once they both read it, it kind of disappears and you don’t look at it again. No one really benefits from it. With a Wikipedia assignment, other people contribute to it, you put it out there for everyone to read, you can keep coming back to it, keep adding to it, other people can do as well. It becomes more of a community project that everyone can read and access. I really enjoyed it.” – Nuam Hatzaw, World Christianity MSc student.

Reproductive Biology Honours students in September 2015 researched, synthesised and developed a first-rate Wikipedia entry of a previously unpublished reproductive medicine term: neuroangiogenesis. The following September, the next iteration was more ambitious. All thirty-eight students were trained to edit Wikipedia and worked collaboratively in groups to research and produce the finished written articles. The assignment developed the students’ research skills, information literacy, digital literacy, collaborative working, academic writing & referencing. (Case study) (blogpost) (video interviews).

One of the most common, and most deadly, forms of ovarian cancer, high grade serous carcinoma was unrepresented on Wikipedia until Reproductive Biology student, Áine Kavanagh, took great care to thoroughly research and write the article to address this; even developing her own openly-licensed diagrams to help illustrate the article. Her scholarship has now been viewed over ten thousand times since September 2016; adding an important source of health information to the global Open Knowledge community.

It was a really good exercise in scientific writing and writing for a lay audience. As a student it’s a really good opportunity. It’s a really motivating thing to be able to do; to relay the knowledge you’ve learnt in lectures and exams, which hasn’t really been relevant outside of lectures and exams, but to see how it’s relevant to the real world and to see how you can contribute.” –Áine Kavanagh.

Reproductive Biology Hons. Assignment By Ewan McAndrew (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
Reproductive Biology Hons. Assignment By Ewan McAndrew (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
Wikipedia in Education

In 2011, ten years after Wikipedia first launched, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article acclaiming that ‘Wikipedia had come of age’ and that it was time Wikipedia played a vital role in formal education settings. Since that article, the advent of ‘Fake News’ has engendered discussions around how best to equip students with a critical information literacy. Yet, for Wikipedia editors, this is nothing new as they have been combatting fake news for years, as source evaluation is one of the Wikipedian’s core skills.

Perceptions of Wikipedia’s role in education are changing rapidly. Recent research has found that Wikipedia is both academically useful, in providing students with an initial orientation on a topic, and that it represents a clear educational opportunity for inclusion within the undergraduate curriculum. Academic educators, and their students, should therefore be encouraged to use Wikipedia, while still exercising caution, and to supplement Wikipedia entries with reliable information from the scholarly literature.

Indeed, there is increasing synchronicity in that the skills and experiences that universities (and the OECD) want to see students endowed with, are the very ones Wikipedia assignments help to develop: information literacy, digital skills, online citizenship, research skills, collaborative working and more. The assignments we have run this year have all demonstrated this and are all to be repeated as a result of the positive engagement and feedback they have engendered.

Now aged sixteen, and constantly evolving and improving, the case for Wikipedia playing a vital role in formal education settings has never been stronger.

Is now the time for Wikipedia to come of age?

If not now, then when?

Next steps:

If you would like to find out more about the residency or these 3 case studies then feel free to contact me at

Watch this 3 min summary video about the residency available with over 150 other videos and video tutorials on the Media Hopper channel.

A step-by-step lesson plan for how to teach Wikipedia editing has also been developed and is available on


  1. Boyd, Danah (2017-01-05). “Did Media Literacy Backfire? – Data & Society: Points”. Data & Society: Points. Retrieved 2017-06-02.
  2. Coughlan, Sean (2017-03-18). “Schools should teach pupils how to spot ‘fake news'”. BBC News. Retrieved 2017-06-02.
  3. Davis, LiAnna (2016-11-21). “Why Wiki Ed’s work combats fake news — and how you can help”. Wiki Education Foundation. Retrieved 2017-06-02.
  4. Grathwohl, Casper (2011-01-07). “Wikipedia Comes of Age”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. ISSN 0009-5982. Retrieved 2017-06-02.
  5. Herbert, Verena G.; Frings, Andreas; Rehatschek, Herwig; Richard, Gisbert; Leithner, Andreas (2015). “Wikipedia – challenges and new horizons in enhancing medical education”. BMC Medical Education. 15: 32. doi:10.1186/s12909-015-0309-2. ISSN 1472-6920. PMC 4384304. PMID 25879421.
  6. Kamenetz, Anya (22 February 2017). “What Students Can Learn By Writing For Wikipedia”. Retrieved 2017-06-02.
  7. Kräenbring, Jona; Monzon Penza, Tika; Gutmann, Joanna; Muehlich, Susanne; Zolk, Oliver; Wojnowski, Leszek; Maas, Renke; Engelhardt, Stefan; Sarikas, Antonio; Lovis, Christian (September 24, 2014). “Accuracy and Completeness of Drug Information in Wikipedia: A Comparison with Standard Textbooks of Pharmacology”. PLoS ONE. 9 (9): e106930. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106930. PMC 4174509. PMID 25250889.
  8. Malone-Kircher, Madison. “Your Middle School Teacher Was Wrong About Wikipedia”. The Vindicated. Retrieved 2017-06-02.

Selwyn, Neil; Gorard, Stephen (January 2016). “Students’ use of Wikipedia as an academic resource — Patterns of use and perceptions of usefulness”. The Internet and Higher Education. 28: 28–34. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2015.08.004.

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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