Follow up to my cautionary tale regarding using Wikipedia in the classroom

Monday, I posted about an experience assigning editing a Wikipedia page as a class project. The very short version: I thought my student did a great job with editing a Wikipedia page, but all her edits ended up being reverted by the editor who created the page originally. At that point, we felt stuck and couldn’t figure out what to do.

The post garnered much, much more attention than I expected. This process has been at least as much of a learning experience for me as for my student, I think. It generated a lot of good discussion in the comments on that post, and there were also comments on various Wikipedia talk pages related to it. In the hopes that some of those lessons will help others, I’ve decided to do a follow up post summarizing them (even though, for a while, I was hoping never to hear the word “Wikipedia” again, given how much this post took over my week).

Suggestions for people using Wikipedia in the classroom:
1. Register your course. It doesn’t matter if only one student will be making edits. It doesn’t matter if the edits will be minor. Create a course page. I think this would have helped a lot.

2. Make sure your students know to check their own talk page, in addition to the talk page for the article they are editing. Their talk page will have the name: (where “Theirusername” would be replaced by whatever your student’s username is.) It turns out that the other editor commented on my student’s talk page but we didn’t know this. An early dialog there may have helped avoid many of the subsequent problems.

3. Take advantage of the WikiProjects talk pages. If I’d had the information in this comment from Matt Heard earlier, again, I think the outcome would have been different. But I wasn’t able to find it on my own (due to my inexperience with Wikipedia). In short, if you go here:
you can find experienced editors who might be able to help. This is exactly what I was looking for, but hadn’t been able to find. As Matt indicated in his comment, for my particular course issue, I should have first gone to WikiProject Medicine and its talk page:
I could have then left a new message by clicking on “new section”.

4. Have your student introduce him/herself on the “talk” page for the article, including indicating that they are a student. They could possibly even describe the pre-wikipedia review process for their edits (e.g., their contributions were checked by three classmates, their professor checked the edits, etc.)

5. If at all possible, make small edits! There was some debate (in the comments on my original post and on wikipedia talk pages) about whether this would actually be feasible or desirable. But, I think, in this case, I could have had my student add one section at a time over the span of a few weeks. If nothing else, it would have alerted us to the potential for edit wars sooner.

6. Use a sandbox, and, if possible, move things out of the sandbox early and edit there. I think this is a difference in culture. Students are used to turning in a final, complete assignment, and if I submitted a manuscript that I was still working on, obviously that wouldn’t go so well. But the culture of Wikipedia is different, and things are likely to go much more smoothly if the cultural norms are followed. One potential downside to this approach, though, is that if others start editing substantially, it could end up being difficult to evaluate your student’s contributions.

Remaining question I have:
One thing that is still unclear to me is what the role is of the instructor when an editing dispute occurs. When I was trying to figure out what to do, many people (including several with substantial Wikipedia editing experience) told me not to get involved on Wikipedia, as it would hurt my student’s cause as an editor. Is there a role for instructors on Wikipedia in this situation? Is it correct that it would be frowned upon if a professor tried to get involved on the talk page for the article if their student is involved in a dispute? And, given that my student was busy with her other courses and finals, would it have been appropriate for me to go to the talk page for WikiProject_Medicine and raise the issue with the reversions? Or should everything be left to the student? If the latter, it seems like valuable edits could get lost if the student gets busy with other things, loses interest, is scared off, etc.

Other notable points:
1. My goal for my original post was to raise undoing of a student’s contributions as a possible issue. I read several articles about using Wikipedia in the classroom, talked about it with folks on twitter repeatedly, but was still completely caught off guard by this. Could I have done more to find out that this might happen? Probably, but I think I invested more than the average person would have in this project, and still hadn’t found out about it. So, I hoped that a blog post would make people aware of the issue. I was very happy with the discussion in the comments, and think it was really productive.

2. The other editor is a woman. As I said in my post, I used the “he” pronoun just because 9/10 of Wikipedia editors are men. More generally, while I think she could have done things differently to avoid this situation, as I’ve said above, so could we. I really, truly regret that some people have come to perceive this as a war between me and the other editor.

3. I raised the issue of gendered discussion in my original post because my female student was turned away from editing by the aggressive discussion on the talk page. I sent my student the article I linked to in my original post when this first happened, and it really resonated with her. So, I still think it stands that the aggressive nature of comments on the talk pages is more likely to turn away women (perhaps especially younger women such as my student). I imagine, though, that the tone of the discussion would have been different if my student had identified herself as a student.

Final thought
Even if a class and student do all of the above, it’s still possible someone will end up in edit wars. So, it’s still a possibility to be aware of, but hopefully it would be rare. Emilio Bruna indicated his class has had this sort of thing happen only once in over 30 assignments. (I’m not counting the one where the problem was due to a student not using a sandbox.) I imagine the likelihood probably changes depending on the nature of the course material (e.g., if I were teaching a course about Daphnia parasites, I doubt anyone would notice the edits, let alone feel strongly enough to engage in edit wars.) If it does happen, then I guess it could just be viewed as a different kind of learning experience.

7 thoughts on “Follow up to my cautionary tale regarding using Wikipedia in the classroom

  1. Pingback: Using Wikipedia in the classroom: a cautionary tale (Updatedx2) | Dynamic Ecology

  2. I am a longtime wikipedia editor and also an adjunct at a local college who is thinking about going in the opposite direction; to start teaching people how to edit wikipedia. I think that in your case, some intervention on behalf of your student would have been helpful, depending on your tone; certainly it might have helped to say that the editor was a student, working at your direction, and asking how BOTH of you could better participate. But I must acknowledge that wikipedia is full of many insecure personalities and people who are a legend in their own minds, often making an editing dispute about more than content even if only content is discussed. On the other hand, poorly-designed educational projects can be the bane of a wikipedia editor’s existence when a stable article is replaced wholesale by a student’s term paper, with improper or no formatting, informal grammar, misspellings, bad punctuation, and so on. Some instructors have reacted with hostility and a “don’t you know who I am” attitude to attempts to reach out, which has sometimes led to overt hostility toward school-based assignments on wikipedia. It’s better now than it used to be, as the course registration setup helps a great deal.

  3. I can’t believe Wikipedia survived beyond a couple of months, given what a tremendous conceptual and practical and political mess that thing is. And seriously, people post up images of bronze stars for achieving “Veteran Editor II” status? Sort of tells you a lot right there.

    But you and your student are to be commended for making the most out of the situation.

  4. @Jim – It does tell you a lot, it tells you that people are proud of their work. A fork is designed, and mostly used by people, as an eating implement. If one person uses it as a weapon to murder someone, it does not mean that anyone displaying a fork is a murderer, they may just want to show that this building is a cafe.

    @Meghan – It is inexcusable. The idea of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. They do not have to have supervision, nor be over 18, nor do they have to be educated to a certain level. They should not have to arrange a “special pass” so that editors do not “bite” them when they come along and proudly help the world by correcting a Wiki mistake, or adding some knowledge not already covered in our articles.

    If this was any member of the public doing this off their own initiative from home, for the first time, and with no knowledge of Wikipedia, the result would have been the same. It should not have been so.

    I find it hard to believe there is nothing which gives information to a new user on where to go and where to find help. I take it this has been taken up with a thread somewhere? It is especially concerning as a new user should be at least made aware of their talk page, or at least shown that they have a new message from the top right of their screen. If the default does not allow this, it needs changing.

    It is ironic that it turned out to be two women, for once I am glad my part of the species was not to blame :¬)

  5. You should teach your students to be aware and to avoid being victimized. Teach them to be savvy and to value their work. That includes learning not to give it away for free. People who write stuff are better off creating their own blog or website.

    Wikipedia bamboozles people into thinking it is some kind of idealistic endeavor. It isn’t. Stuff given to Wikipedia is not public domain. Wikipedia is outwardly about high altruistic ideals but the proof is how it treats those it relies on; it does not look so savoury behind the curtain. You’ve gotten a taste of its abusiveness. It should be no surprise that editors don’t last.

  6. When I introduce Wikipedia, I describe it as a social encyclopedia. That immediately makes people recognize that it’s not only about adding/emending information, it’s about learning how to communicate with a network of people who may or may not share your beliefs. In that regard it’s no different from real life where you will encounter—and may have to work with—people who are diametrically opposed to the way you see the world. Of course the first step is to have accurate sources. But the other step (which most people don’t realize or neglect) is that you have to be able to not only defend your edits, but convince the other parties of their verity. Similarly, you must be open to changing your mode of thinking if the other person feels strongly about what their doing.

    For that reason, I think editing Wikipedia is an excellent way to hone one’s abilities. (My interests happen to be mostly esoteric, so I rarely get into edit wars.)

  7. Pingback: Indigenous histories on Wikipedia – Active History

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