(Third and final update: If you read this post, please also read this follow up post, which includes summaries of ways to try to reduce the likelihood of running into the same problem.)
Last fall, one of my students contacted me to ask if she could do an “Honors Conversion” of the first-year seminar I was teaching on Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine. After learning what that meant (basically, just that the student has to do an extra assignment in order for the course to count towards the Honors Program), I decided that this could be a great opportunity to do a trial run of an idea I had considered in the past: having students edit Wikipedia as part of their coursework. The project ended up being much more of a learning experience for my student and myself, as I will describe below. But to cut to the chase: will I use Wikipedia in the classroom again? Right now, I’m not sure.
Using Wikipedia as an educational tool was really appealing to me. It seemed like it would improve student learning – students would be motivated by realizing what they were doing might be viewed by and help others. And it just seemed like a better use of everyone’s time to have the effort that goes into working on and editing student assignments result in something that could benefit lots of other people. I did some research on using Wikipedia in the classroom, and it seemed like it worked well.
I was still concerned about the mechanics of editing Wikipedia: how labor-intensive would it be for students to figure out how to create and/or edit a page? Would it be worth that time? Would I be able to help them if they ran into problems? How much of a hassle would that be? In the end, I signed up for my own Wikipedia account, and used it to do some very basic editing (related to my goal of increasing the representation of women ecologists on Wikipedia). I decided that the mechanics were manageable. Better yet, I was put in touch with a Wikipedian here at the University of Michigan who would be able to help with the mechanics. And it seemed like, if this assignment helped students get over the mechanical hurdles, it would enable them to continue to edit in the future, which would be a nice bonus of the assignment.
So, I decided to give it a shot.* I ran the idea by the student, who was really enthusiastic. She was, as I expected, excited that the end product would be something that would be available to everyone and that it might help others.
In the end, the specific assignment I gave her was to identify a Wikipedia page that was related to the course that didn’t exist at all or that could benefit from substantial editing. In my research, I had read that it’s best to avoid pages that have been recently edited, since editing those might upset others. And it seemed safest to avoid pages where people might have very strongly held opinions (e.g., vaccination). We approached the project in a few steps: first, she did research and choose some possible pages. Then, after looking over the pages she had in mind and discussing them with her, she settled on editing the page related to superspreaders. It seemed like a good choice: it was rated as being of high importance but only “C-class” in terms of quality, it was very short, and it hadn’t been edited recently (which I defined as within the past several months; its last edit had been in July 2013).
What the superspreader Wikipedia page looked like before being edited as part of a class assignment. It was quite short, with lots of room for improvement.
My student then went about doing research on the topic, reading several primary literature articles as well as additional sources. She then drafted her edits to the page, and she and I went back and forth a few times making sure things were accurate, clearly stated, and properly supported by references. She then contacted the wikipedian who gave her information on the mechanics of getting it posted. My student created a “sandbox” version of the post and then, finally, made the edits to the regular post. She sent me an email on a Friday afternoon saying it was up. She and I were really excited. The page looked great! (So good that I can’t adequately capture it with a screenshot, so you’ll have to click through to see.) She had made really substantial, careful edits that, in my opinion, vastly improved the quality of the page. I tweeted about how successful the project had been, posted it to Facebook, and, in general, was ready to tell anyone who would listen about how great the assignment was. At that point, I couldn’t believe anyone was still assigning traditional term papers. This seemed so much better!
Unfortunately, as you presumably expect given the title of this post, it didn’t end there. On Monday morning, I woke up to an email from my student saying that someone had undone all her edits. Obviously this was really disappointing to me and my student. My first thought was that surely it had been some error. Her edits had been so good! But then I continued reading her email and saw that she had tried to restore the edits, only to have them undone again. And then, when I logged into the “talk” page (where people who are editing a Wikipedia page can discuss things with one another), I could see that the person who was undoing the edits was being really hostile to my student. The discussion on the talk page was a pretty good example of the phenomenon described here (which is based on research on how men and women communicate online). To quote that article:
However, men tended to assert their opinions as “facts,” whereas women tended to phrase their informative messages as suggestions, offers, and other non-assertive acts. In other words, the gender difference was in their communication styles, not in the actual informativeness of their contributions.
-Susan Herring (quote from this article)
At this point, we would have been pretty lost without the Wikipedian. She gave us a little more information (e.g., explaining that, given that the person who was undoing the edits was also the person who had created the page, it might be an issue where he feels like he** “owns” the page). She also gave us options. The main things she suggested is that she could work with my student to go through line-by-line and explain why her edits are well-sourced, not synthesis (which Wikipedia doesn’t allow), and improve the article. But the other person may continue to undo them. Based on what has happened so far, I’m pretty sure he will. On the talk page, he is already making claims that the articles she cites do not support her statements, when they very clearly do. But, if she has made a good faith effort to explain her edits and he persists in undoing them, we could escalate it to report the other editor. In my opinion, this other editor is clearly violating two of Wikipedia’s guidelines/policies: he is acting like he owns the page and he is not being civil to the newcomer. But my impression is that my student is unlikely to “win” in this case – she is a new editor, and the other person has a profile page that looks like this:
(I found it kind of amazing that this person is on the welcoming committee, given his behavior to a new editor who made substantial, constructive edits to a page. But looking at this page and this page, it seems that he’s no longer on that committee.)
Seniority means a lot at Wikipedia. When discussing this with others, it sounds like, unless a senior Wikipedia editor steps in to help my student, the other editor is likely to be successful in keeping my students edits off the page. This is a really disappointing outcome. Plus, my student has needed to focus on all her other courses and finals, so hasn’t had time to do the line-by-line response yet.
Moreover, I feel somewhat responsible for putting my student in a situation in which she is being bullied. Obviously the main responsibility for the bullying lies with the other editor, but, if not for me assigning this project, she would not have been in an environment that has an editing culture that can sometimes be aggressive.
So, to come back to the question I started with: will I use Wikipedia in the classroom again? It was fun for me and the student to be working on something that would contribute to a site that is the first place many people turn for information. My student did a great job with the assignment and learned a lot from it. But having all her work undone and having her be bullied in the “talk” section obviously makes me much less keen on this sort of project (and makes her much less keen on editing for Wikipedia in the future). My impression is that this sort of bullying is not common, but it also sounds like it’s not rare. Right now, I’m not sure how to weigh all these different things. I’m glad that, thanks to my teaching schedule for the immediate future, it’s not something I’ll have to decide right away. And, in the meantime, I guess I’ll see how this plays out.
Have you edited Wikipedia or had your students edit it? If so, have you run into this sort of issue?
UPDATE, May 6: The response to this post has been pretty overwhelming. Thanks to all the wikipedia editors and others who’ve given feedback. It seems clear that a key thing that I should have done differently is ask my student to make her edits in pieces, rather than do a big overall edit. Two other things we probably should have done would have been to have the student identify herself as a student working on this as part of a course on the talk page, and for me to have registered the course, even though this was just a single student editing (see my first footnote below). As I said in the post, this has been much more of a learning experience than we expected!
UPDATE, May 7: Comments on this post are now closed, due to unusual circumstances specific to this post. Comments on all other posts remain open as usual.
* There is a way to register a class as involving Wikipedia editing. We didn’t do that for this semester, since it was just a single student editing a single page. I’m told that doing that might make the sort of hostile editing situation we ran into less likely.
** I don’t know for sure that this person is a man. But in seems likely, in part given that nine out of ten Wikipedia editors are men.