Wikipedia in the Classroom – how students are shaping the open web

Reproductive_Biomedicine_Wikipedia_Education_assignment_-_scaledSince the early 2000’s, Wikipedia has acquired somewhat of a negative reputation for being unreliable. Educators are normally wary of allowing Wikipedia as a source that anyone can edit. This is due to believing it to be a source of misinformation, going directly against their role to reduce misinformation in the world.

However, what if the contrary is true?

What if Wikipedia can be used to reduce misinformation in the world, an often-highlighted problem of our current times. This is the very mission of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia projects exist to combat misinformation. Researchers found that only 7% of all Wikipedia edits are considered vandalism and nearly all vandalism edits are reverted instantly by automated programs (bots), which help to patrol Wikipedia for copyright violation, plagiarism and vandalism. If a page is targeted for vandalism, the page can also be ‘semi-protected’; essentially locking the page so new edits are reviewed before being added.

Due to open licensing of Wikipedia content, it is more visible across the Internet. For example, Google scrapes from Wikipedia biographies to feature as sidebar profiles as part of its ‘Knowledge Graph’ results for notable people. Wikipedia articles also appear within Google’s top five search results. This is important when one considers ‘search is the way we live now’. Google processes 91% of searches internationally and 97.4% of searches from mobile devices. It has also been found to have a funneling effect whereby the sources clicked upon the first page of results are clicked on 90% of the time with 42% click through on the first choice alone. Hence, there is agency to editing Wikipedia.

Today, in its 17th year, Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website[1] on the internet and a top five referrer to DOIs (at least) according to the latest estimates from Crossref. Wikipedia is also trusted more than traditional news publications, including the BBC, Times, Telegraph and Guardian, according to a recent YouGov poll[2]. With 48 million articles in 299 languages, Wikipedia is the largest reference work on the internet and the go-to source of information for people around the world.

Editing and creating Wikipedia as a pedagogical approach

The process of researching and writing a Wikipedia article demonstrates ‘how the sausage is made’ – how knowledge is created, curated and contested online – and asks students to consider what constitutes a reliable source. In this way, students can be introduced to discussions on information and media literacy. Ultimately, as an encyclopedia of articles made up from citations from high quality published secondary sources, it is these sources that one should cite, not Wikipedia itself. In this way, Wikipedia reframes itself as the digital gateway to academic research; a useful place for pre-researching a topic to orientate oneself before delving into the scholarly literature. Recent research shows that 87.5% of students were using it in this way; in “an introductory and/or clarificatory role” and finding it ‘academically useful’ in this context.

Hence, within the boundaries of Wikipedia, editing guidelines of notability, reliability, and verifiability can prove to be a valuable resource in education. The new Visual Editor interface means Wikipedia editing has never been easier to learn and it builds a number of key skills. It encourages digital creation and digital collaboration skills. It builds digital research skills through finding relevant sources. Most of all, the opportunity for students to actively engage in learning their discipline, synthesising the available research, and then communicating what they have learnt in an accessible manner for a non-specialist audience is an uniquely motivating and incredibly valuable skill for any student.


What is amazing about editing and creating Wikipedia articles is that it allows for dialogue and improvement of the article through collaborative working. It isn’t just another essay or presentation that students may never return to, but something that has actually been created and survives beyond the life of the assignment as a community project that others around the world can add to, update and improve over time; a way of demonstrating the relevance of a student’s degree and communicating their scholarship for the common good in a real-world application of teaching and learning.



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.

Jemima Johns

Jemima Johns is a 4th year undergraduate at the School of Law, and Digital Skills intern.

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