My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 3


posted before about the class response to their “greatest insight” gained from participation in the Wikipedia as a Research Tool course at the University of Memphis this past semester.  Here is my first post on the course that provides background on how I constructed the class and shifts in student thinking about Wikipedia over the semester.

This week, I take up a second question on their final exam where students recommended changes for the next time I teach the course.  Below is a representative sample of student responses along with my thoughts.

What about this class did not work for you?  How would you improve the course if offered in the future?

“I would improve the course by having students create articles from the (Wikipedia) list of requested pages. I feel it would be easier to have something to go off of . . . versus having students create an article on their own.  I noticed at the beginning of the semester, a lot of people were simply editing the articles for their high school. I knew very little about creating an article, let alone a music or album article, and therefore got to experience a lot more in-depth about how to create one. It was actually a lot of fun getting to mess around and figure stuff out, like figuring out how to create a track list or adding an album cover. I feel that if everyone stepped out of their comfort zones and did an article that required more than just adding a few sentences, they would get a better experience of editing an article and starting from scratch.”

The Wikipedia 12-week syllabus for article creation allows students to get half-way through the course before getting serious about the topic of the article they will produce.  Although I directed students to the request for articles page early in the course, the formal structure of the 12-week syllabus allowed for procrastination.  The focus on creating a page was in some ways a detriment to the process.  Some students created excellent pages and others not.  In hindsight, the expectation that all students will create an article results in inevitable substandard pieces being loaded to Wikipedia’s public space that will ultimately be deleted.   Simple fixes for this problem include:

  • to not set a mandatory sequential timeframe as the current 12-week syllabus does for moving the student article from the sandbox to a live page.
  • require instructor approval for moving the article from the sandbox to the live page.
  • or require students to submit their articles to the formal Wikipedia editorial process when moving the pieces from the sandbox.

Understanding the coding was difficult for me, and moving my page out of the sandbox and onto a live page posed many challenges. This however, was not a sign of a fault in class, as I was given the tools to resolve these issues. My only suggestion for reducing this problem would be to possibly create a page in class, as an example. This would allow the students to be more familiar with how to complete the tasks above before they had to do it on their own.

This comment flows into a discussion of Marc Prensky’s often cited article Digital Native, Digital Immigrants.  Though informative, the article seems to overstate the divide.  For example, the problems some of the students had with the technology in the class, seem counter to the sweeping generalizations of the divide painted by Prensky.  Simply put, as a Digital Immigrant, I overestimated the digital knowledge of the Digital Natives in the class.

Although I reviewed each step in class, we watched Wikipedia tutorials on same, and students were provided links to reference sheets for every process, some students had a difficult time with the rather simple Wikipedia coding.  Some students remained unaware of the Beta Visual Editor or reference templates, despite being discussed and used as examples in class.

The fixes to the technological concerns include:

  • require students to bring their laptops to class.  Alternatively, the class could be held in a computer lab on campus.
  • although I demonstrated all processes in class on existing articles, some students suggested that I create an article along with them.  This suggestion makes complete sense to me.  I was in error when assuming basic coding would be readily understood by all students.

Also, the course might be improved if the sister projects were emphasized a little more. This is just a personal suggestion because I was unaware of these projects before the class, and I was quite intrigued by them. I think spending a little more time investing some of these could be interesting and would shed more light on just how incredible Wikipedia as a whole is.

I enjoyed the reading journals and giving insight on specific things. The only thing that I really felt myself begging for during the year was just more class discussion. I really enjoyed listening to what my fellow classmates had to say about what they had found in their experiences.

The above two comments get to the essence of the changes I will incorporate in the next iteration of this course.  The course ended up focusing too much on the technical aspects of Wikipedia and not enough on the concept I really wanted to bring to the table – a discussion of user-generated content and open authority as in Lori Byrd Philip’s recent article The Temple and the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums.  Although we did discuss blogs, webinars, MOOCs and related issues, in the future I will spend more time on these topics.

Also Case Studies: How Professors are Teaching with Wikipedia is an excellent alternative resource to the 12-week article writing syllabus.  The assignments in the case studies do not require creating a Wikipedia article but provide experience in the same production skills, such as editing articles and adding photographs or other graphics to existing articles.  These activities seem more suitable for the type of class I taught that met for only one hour, once per week for 15 weeks.

Here are a few summary points on my general experience with the class:

  • The course provided students with an experience in user-generated content where they were required to make decisions and assessments independent of their instructor.  Although successful, I want to push that experience further.  Unfortunately, a considerable amount of time in the classroom and for the students work outside of class got bogged down in technical minutia.  A one-hour per week, one semester course with Freshman, most with very limited experience in user-generated content, proved an insufficient amount of time to both introduce the concept and create the product.
  • Wikipedia video tutorials and information sheets contain somewhat of a mixed message about the real world experience of Wikipedia.  The admonition to “be bold” and abundant notations that you can clean up any mistakes after the fact, while true, is certainly not the position of many of the editors.  While some territoriality, dismissive, and elitist comments are not uncommon on Wikipedia, the majority of editorial comments received by my students were completely in order, supportive, and on target.  Whereas most students produced acceptable or superior products/edits, a significant minority put up articles of poor quality.  In fact, my greatest misgiving in the course was not having safeguards in place, such as noted above, to prevent poor quality articles from going public, that will ultimately be deleted.
  • I am strong proponent of open authority and user-generated content.  Throughout the course, I consistently emphasized that Wikipedia was only being used as an example to examine user-generated content.  Throughout the course for every Jimmy Wales video promoting Wikipedia, we watched a second video that presented a counter perspective.  Ditto for readings.  For example, a third question on the students final exam was to assess Tom Simonite’s The Decline of Wikipedia recently published in the MIT Technology Review.  Given the brevity of the class, I did not include readings or videos that might be termed more as rants or diatribes such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur.  However, given today’s polarized sociopolitical climate on almost every issue, there is an apparent need to expand student exposure to these more extreme positions and I will do so in the future.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and look forward to a revised course offering for the fall of 2014.

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6 thoughts on “My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 3”

  1. With regards to your “Simply put, as a Digital Immigrant, I overestimated the digital knowledge of the Digital Natives in the class,” I have found this to be generally true and surprising with my students as well. They can navigate pre-loaded templates or use APPS with not problem, but if they have to do anything that requires something outside the norm, or a deeper use of a program or application, they are lost.

    Thanks for this discussion, by the way. Very interesting.

    1. Bernard,

      I find the level of knowledge is really quite mixed. Some folks breezed through, some really struggled, and some waited until the last minute and were in crisis as would be expected if one tries to cram 15 weeks worth or work into one evening. But a great experience that I look forward to running more efficiently and effectively next time around.

      1. Robert,

        Interesting. And, of course, the cramming is an issue for me as well, no matter how explicit I am on how challenging an assignment will be if one waits to the last minute!



  2. Such helpful insights from this and your other article about using Wikipedia with underclassmen. I just completed a full 3 credit course on research and writing with Wikipedia with Composition 2 students. I was able to revamp my current iteration of the course this semester based on the feedback you so carefully relayed and summarized. Thanks very much!

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