As some readers may guess, I get mixed reactions whenever I share that I use Wikipedia in my history classes. In fact, I use it for more than just reading assignments. I require my students to research and write an article for Wikipedia to become more responsible digital citizens. And it is consistently one of my most successful assignments. It shows students the difference between fact-only writing and analytical writing, it introduces research methods, and it gives them more insight into the workings of Wikipedia, so they understand why they should or
should not use it in various situations.
The assignment itself consists of two parts, each graded separately: writing the article and monitoring and improving the article.
Pick a Topic
Choosing a topic is straightforward. Students pick either a topic related to history that does not have a substantial article already written about it or a topic listed on the history stubs page on Wikipedia—a listing of topics requiring expansion. Thousands of stub articles exist to choose from, including U.S. history, history of science, and military history.
I encourage students to find a topic relevant to their interests, potential careers, or even hobbies. Students have written about various historical topics related to psychology, sociology, engineering, sports, art, and theater, to name a few. I must approve their topic before they can start the assignment. I generally approve topics if I think enough secondary and tertiary sources are available to allow for an adequate article.
Lay the Groundwork
Then they research the topic and contribute approximately 500 words to the article. The article must include footnotes and reference at least two published books as well as two external websites and link to at least two other Wikipedia pages. Students must use proper formatting for footnotes, headings, lists, links, and other content, per Wikipedia formatting guidelines. They must also create a user account and log in when editing. If an article’s history does not include the user name that each student sent to me at the beginning of the semester, they do not get credit.
Monitor and Improve the Article
After publishing, students must watch the article, see if anyone contributes or changes their article, and, if so, connect with these users. The goal is to improve the article, either with other users or individually. If their article becomes flagged for deletion, students must work to avoid having the article deleted. Regardless of outcome, students must write a 500-word reflection on what happened to their article and how their ideas about Wikipedia changed during the semester.
Research the Material
The research process is, more or less, the same kind of research process one would expect when assigning a short term paper. We discuss how to find resources on particular topics and how to brainstorm, create outlines, etc. I introduce students to the librarian, who can assist them in their search for sources. Wikipedia also has policies about citations, so I make sure students read the policy on citing sources and verifiability. Additionally, I discuss uses of different kinds of sources and Wikipedia’s preference for secondary and tertiary sources over primary sources. Student articles must not contain original research.
Write and Format the Article
Probably the trickiest part is showing students how to write for Wikipedia. We spend an entire class period reviewing the page “How to Edit a Wikipedia Article,” particularly the formatting section. Students can practice formatting before working on their articles at Wikipedia’s Tutorial (see Resources at the end of this article). I demonstrate onscreen how to do different kinds of formatting: footnotes, headings, unordered lists, ordered lists, internal and external links, and inserting an image. A useful guide detailing formats for specific content elements is also available.
Publish and Participate
The assignment does not end once the article is published. After publication, students must watch for and participate in any changes taking place in their article, for good or ill. I show them specifically two sections of their article to watch:
History page. I encourage students not to revert things immediately, but to take the time to look at changes, determine if they help or hurt the article, and take the appropriate action.
Talk page. Here, students have to defend their articles or learn from other Wikipedians about how to improve their articles. Community members talk about the article in question, offering suggestions for improvement or declaring reasons the article seems irrelevant and should be deleted.
Often, students’ articles are recommended for deletion or their changes are reverted. In these cases, I show students how to interact with Wikipedia admins, review Wikipedia’s deletion policy, and examine the process of deletion review. I have had several students’ articles recommended for deletion, and the students justified their articles well enough to save them.
Why Assign a Wikipedia Article?
What is the larger value of this assignment? It helps my students in three ways. They:
Learn how to do research. The assignment involves good writing skills and a substantial amount of research for a high school history class. Writing the article gets students acquainted with basic research methods.
Develop a new view of Wikipedia. Most people have preconceptions about Wikipedia but very little experience actually reading and writing an article for the site. Even fewer people have experience communicating with other Wikipedia users, particularly admins and editors. This influences how they interact with others on various social sites and services. Moreover, students learn that not just anything can be published on Wikipedia and that rules and policies govern content.
Learn the difference between fact-only writing and analytical writing. Most of my students have a difficult time understanding how to make an argument and how to differentiate between fact-based reporting and analysis. Forced to write a just-the-facts report helps students see the difference between the two.
This assignment is successful because students find a topic they are interested in and research it, learn how to write for different audiences, learn how to use Wikipedia more efficiently, and understand when it is good to use Wikipedia and when it is not. Furthermore, they get experience with community and collaborative writing and can use those skills long after the course is over.
It takes a bit of work on my part to make sure students understand the assignment and the technology involved, but it is worth the effort. It is much more meaningful to have students contribute to a larger, more public body of knowledge than to write a term paper for me, which has no life after the end of the semester. If this assignment can produce some good articles on Wikipedia and get students talking to others and learning outside of class, I consider it a success.
Citing Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:citing_sources
Deletion Policy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:deletion_policy
Deletion Review: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:deletion_review
History Stubs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/category:history_stubs
How to Edit a Wikipedia Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:how_to_
No Original Research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:no_original_research
Talk Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:talk_page
—Jeremy Boggs is the creative lead at the Center for History and New Media and a history PhD student at George Mason University. His work focuses on how to teach and research history using shared digital technology