Skip to content

A better way to use Wikipedia in the classroom

This is an idea I’ve said in presentations and in person over and over again, about time I give it a home.

Where Wikipedia is a useful information source and starting place for deeper exploration beyond it’s reference-focused world, there is so much more that can be done with it to help teach the open source way.

In fact, you can teach all of the basics of joining a collaborative free and open source software community without ever getting more technical than how to get an account and edit a wiki page.

Here’s the process I would follow, in a US-based classroom.  You can adopt to fit in your environment.  This is applicable to all age levels – I’d encourage six-year-olds to define a good Summary log message and click the Save page button.  A good reference is the Wikipedia article on creating your first article.

  1. Use Wikipedia as a tool for learning the open source way by extending your use as a research tool.  In other words, let the work be topic driven and associated with your other lessons.  For this procedure, consider the example of a class studying their local watershed.  When researching with the students, use Wikipedia as a resource to understand the larger elements of the topic, such as what a drainage basin is, how topology affects the local watershed, what hydrology is, and what are the laws about protecting watersheds and wetlands.
  2. The first thing you can simply draw attention to is that the page for “Watershed” on Wikipedia is a disambiguation page.  It’s purpose is to guide you to other pages because the term you were looking for is ambiguous in usage, that is, it has multiple meanings that each have a separate Wikipedia article about them.  You can point out that this is a collaboratively done page.  Both the history page and the discussion page are rich with information about who wrote the page, when it was done, and snippets of why it was done.  (This is where a good guide to Wikipedia for participants is useful, to help the teacher learn more about what history and discussion pages, for example, are for, how they work, why they matter, etc.)
  3. As you proceed through research using Wikipedia, look for and explain these items to the students:
    1. Red links – these are pages that do not exist yet, meaning there is information to link outward to from the article you are reading, but that Wikipedia page doesn’t exist yet.
    2. Mistakes, such as typos, spelling, and grammatical errors.
    3. Unclear or overly complicated writing.
  4. The first contribution from the class is likely to come from finding and fixing mistakes or helping improve writing:
    1. When a mistake is spotted, do something about it right away.  Login as your user (read more below), note for the class that you are logged in with different links in the upper right corner, and click [edit].  Make the fix to the page, and when saving include a short but detailed Summary such as:  “Fixed spelling of a few words and corrected punctuation mistakes, all spotted by students in my 2010 6th grade science class at Branciforte Middle School, Santa Cruz, CA.”  When you save this message, it is logged with the edit and that information, which is retained forever.  Twenty years from now, your students can look up the work you did together on Wikipedia long after they have discarded the work they brought home from class.
    2. For helping to improve writing, you want to defer the committing of changes to the live page to the people who write and maintain the page regularly.  This is one of the purposes of the discussion page that each article in Wikipedia has.  Use that link and edit the resulting page.  For example, to add a new section to the [[Talk:Hydrology]] page, click on new section and fill out the form.  Give it a sensible subject, such as “Fix for confusing paragraph in the history section.”  In the body of the form include an explanation of the problem (why it is confusing), a fix (your rewritten-with-the-students’-help draft), and your signature (four-tilde characters ~~~~ are used to sign and datestamp automatically.) Save this new section. Main writers of the page will return and read your new section, comment on it or make the fix, and so forth.  When they are done with it, they likely move it to an archive page.  Check back with our students to see progress on your discussion topic.
  5. Once a class has witnessed the power of editing a wiki, and had the pleasure of showing the change to friends and family, they are ready for the next level, which is creating a new page.  This is where the red links come in, which are put there by other authors of Wikipedia partially as reminders, and partially as an invitation to write the page yourself.  For example, the [[Hydrology]] page has a prominent red link at the top to [[water chemistry]].  Following that link gives you an empty page ready to fill.
    1. A good first goal is to create a nice stub page with a basic definition of the article topic, and a reference to back-up the definition.
    2. To be safe and sane, you’re going to actually build the initial page in [[User:Yourusername/Water chemistry]], then rename it to [[Water chemsitry]] when is is ready.
    3. Start by copying the structure, categories, and so forth from the page source of the [[Hydrology]] page, viewable together by clicking edit for the whole page.  Empty the content, rename sections, and make it a template ready to fill with information about water chemistry.
    4. Find out the markup to put in the page that notes it is a stub page, a draft, and needs references.
    5. This is an opportunity to show research beyond Wikipedia, since the original information sources must be found to use for populating and referring on the new Wikipedia page.
  6. Once a new page (article) has been created, and shown widely, the class is ready for considering several new ways to participate:
    1. Continue to watch and work on the articles the class created as article maintainers.
    2. Write up a new Wikipedia article (more than a stub).  For example, if there are unique properties to your local, named watershed and no corresponding Wikipedia article, you may think it is notable and should have an article.  Divide the class into small groups and have them research and write each section of the new page.  References are important, etc.  Essentially, this is a written report but the report becomes a Wikipedia article.
    3. Define and work on a set of articles.  For example, your local watershed may be part of a larger watershed system in your state.  An entire class semester could be spent researching and writing a series of articles to cover the larger watershed system and the individual components of it.

Teachers need a Wikipedia account, with a user profile at [[wiki/User:Username]].  You can make all the changes in Wikipedia on behalf of your students to provide anonymity to individuals and put the aggregate class work under a single copyight holder. The profile should keep track of the general information about the class(es) the teacher has contributed from, such as “Alan Parsons Project Middle School 6th Grade Science”.  This is part of showing other Wikipedia people who you are and what you intend to do so that you have their support as you continue using Wikipedia as a lesson in the open source way.  It also helps create the record of the class’ work, for example, when students are applying to schools later and want to show the work they did.

This is a very short guide to this idea, really just a starting point.  I could see this being a longer document, including step-by-step for the teachers on joining and learning about how to contribute to Wikipedia.  Let me know if it helps, how it could be improved, or if there is another free content work covering this content I could support instead.  Or should it be a Wikipedia article …?