Countering Alternative Facts: Wikipedia in the Classroom

Because a few friends have asked about this recently, and because many of us are embroiled in the semi-traumatizing mid-August ritual of syllabus planning, I’m breaking the summer hiatus to describe my experience of assigning a Wikipedia project in my Spring 2017 ‘Women in Early Modern Drama’ sophomore course. Tl;dr: it was useful, I’m glad we did it, and yayyyyy public outreach and engagement (see: Hannah McGregor’s post) but I would certainly change a few things in future iterations of the assignment.

Wikipedia has a highly developed education department that has full-time staff hired to specially help with your courses. They are good: I first ‘met’ their Outreach Manager Samantha Weald over Skype at a WikiEd event at Fordham last year, and since registering my Spring class for a small project, she and her colleagues have contacted me frequently offering help, advice, guidance, and asking for feedback. Here is the page they’ve created for getting started with your course, which includes an orientation tutorial that takes about 25 minutes to complete, and there is also a dashboard where you can browse all the different courses registered with WikiEd and what impact they’re making.  Really there’s not much practical guidance I can add to the multitude of electronic and personal resources they’ve already compiled. Just shoot Samantha or anyone an email; they will respond.
My project: 
Working internally with the WikiEd experts, you create a course page which allows you to track student progress and edits (which means instructors will know who waited until the final hour to complete all 5 weeks of assignments!). Once you register your course, you are assigned a Content Expert who will help field questions or concerns your class may have – I know some of my students corresponded directly with ours. Here’s what my page looks like from my perspective, with course data:

750K article views! That sounds pretty impressive, right?
Personally, since I myself was just learning how to edit Wikipedia for the first time and I had never assigned anything like this before, and also because I was teaching a sophomore class with many first-years, I opted for the ‘small project’ rather than a full article-length project. If you glanced at my course description above, a project like this has obvious topical relevance: our course was designed to identify and recover early modern fictional women from oblivion, and we similarly aimed to expand their representation on Wikipedia in accordance with the diversity problems Wikipedia faces across-the-board.
After compiling a list of viable articles in class, the project was split into five weeks: in the first week, students simply had to sign up for the course and complete personal interactive modules on how to edit and evaluate Wikipedia; in the second week, they completed an ‘Evaluating Articles and Sources’ module and then had to find an article related to our course content and critique it (is the article written from a neutral POV? is every fact referenced with appropriate citations? is any information out-of-date? Are any viewpoints overrepresented?); third week, they copyedited an article, perhaps building on the changes they suggested in Week 2. Things really heated up in week four, as I asked them to add at least two sentences of new content to an article. Week five, they had to add a peer-reviewed scholarly source to an article, formatted and cited flawlessly of course, as well as 1-2 sentences of content summarizing and introducing it. This final step also included a training module on ‘Sources and Citations’ which instilled the fear of plagiarism deep into their souls. I gave my students a fair bit of leeway regarding which articles they could focus on, and whether or not they wanted to contribute to and edit only one across all five weeks.

Further guidelines were provided on the internal course website.
WikiEd allows you to select templates for these individual modules and alter and customize them to your course. The weeks appear in an internal timeline and you can also grade them through the system, though I opted to base my numerical assessment on the final reflection I had them write wherein they needed to narrate their progress through the sequence and offer any comments on how well (or not) the assignment went. I did not want to be responsible for tracking each student individually across every single step, so while they knew I was watching over them big-brother-style, they were responsible for taking screenshots of their work and describing what they learned at each step of the process. These final reflections were about two pages long.
My students were pretty excited when I told them that their changes–even those as small as fixing a grammatical error or improving the clarity of a sentence–received tens of thousands of hits (numbers I can also access as the instructor). (As an academic blogger whose posts have received thousands more hits than my academic articles ever will, I can relate to this!) See for example this edited sentence on the page for The Taming of the Shrew whose changes have been seen 136 320 times, a fact I made sure to relay to the student:
You can access all these changes through your course page, which is crucial since they may no longer exist when you’re grading the assignments: the sentence above now reads “Numerous men, including Gremio and Tranio, deem Katherina an unworthy option for marriage because of her notorious assertiveness and willfulness.”  Such is the ebb and flow of the internet. At least in that case, some of the student’s language has been preserved.
However, our course was victim to what I suspect to be a bit of online trolling: many of my students’ changes were rejected and reversed by one single user with an apparent interest in early theatre, and though I understand some of his changes, it was still discouraging to see. We noticed as a class that there is a separate page for Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, but not for Katherine, which replicates the very same gendered issues that are raised by the play (the men have autonomy, agency, mobility, while the women are controlled by their fathers and husbands, viewed as aberrant forces to subdue when, like the Katherine of the opening scenes, they refuse to bow). But one student’s attempt to create a separate page for Katherine has subsequently been rejected, presumably because it wasn’t notable or well-sourced enough.
Mostly, though, my students had positive feedback for the assignment. Here are some excerpts of what they wrote in their final responses (and for the most part, I do believe them!):

I suddenly remembered that this information was put into the world for anyone to see, but instead of being nervous about that fact I felt amazed and happy. It is so exciting to see something I did be seen by thousands of people and makes me want to add information to other articles. This project also made me very conscious of what I contribute in the future and has taught me some good tips on how to use reliable sources and cite them correctly. (Maryam)

I feel as though I am now more apt to notice holes and errors in Wikipedia pages, and I plan on making edits to articles in the future when opportunities present themselves. If there’s anything I have learned from the politics of the last six months, it is that we need to take responsibility for verifying sources before spreading the news we read on the internet.  After this experience, I feel more confident in my ability to help protect myself and others from the dangers of ‘alternative facts.’ (Bree)

Although at first it seemed outside of the realm of what our class was really focused on, it proved to be a valuable activity both related to our content and to a broader spectrum of academic work. (Marissa)

If all college students were required to do this for all of their classes, there would be free and reliable information for almost every subject. (Stephanie)

I want to take my knowledge of Wikipedia editing and use it to fix articles about my favorite books, TV shows, movies, and celebrities. These pages may not be as educational as the pages that I already cited, but it makes me want to look up more, fix more, learn more, and aid others in learning more as well. (Maria)

This exercise allowed me to practice my research and citation skills, whose usage can sometimes feel isolated to only academic settings. (Julia)

So many of the female characters […] either have no pages or have very bare pages. It is very frustrating to see a more minor male character, like Edmund [from King Lear], with a page that approximates three or four pages while prominent female characters, like Goneril and Regan, barely have two pages. (Clare, who added an excellent section on “Role in Play” to the Goneril character page

While it can’t be denied that I had an especially eager, bright group of students last semester, I am confident that the project taught them editing, sourcing, and observational skills that extended beyond the narrow confines of our classroom, fulfilling service learning objectives. I’m also pleased as punch that some of them picked up on the utility of the project in the current political climate of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ They loved feeling like what we learn in the classroom could make a difference in the public sphere. The assignment also helped them recognize that yes, sexism still exists in the present and can be seen through unequal online representation of female characters whose depth, nuance, and complexity our course was based around. In fact, we realized that in some ways we’ve regressed in terms of gender parity: we were mostly reading plays by men, after all, some of which featured strong characters who could not readily be placed on a binary gender spectrum (Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girle), or girls who fall in love with each other while disguised as boys (John Lyly’s Galatea).

Future changes: 
I may assign another Wikipedia assignment in my courses this year, but if I do, it will involve two major differences:

  1. I will assign longer projects in groups which will give weaker students who found posting online intimidating a boost, and help round out the grammatical and content problems that found many individual changes getting rejected by other Wikipedians. I will also assign a draft of the changes that I’ll approve before posting to help prevent the same. More oversight was needed.
  2. I will spend more time in class going through the modules and expectations. The reading load for this course was heavy and probably could have benefited from a slightly slower pace to make room for more practical in-class guidance. I think I let too much of this assignment happen on individual computer screens in dorm rooms. Devoting more classtime will also help us generate shared goals for pages and projects that we want to develop as a class.
Basically, my future assignment will involve less atomized learning and more communal goals which would help us leave a more lasting digital footprint after the class is over–so that perhaps we can indeed create a standalone page for Katherine.
Readers, have you used Wikipedia in the classroom, and do you have anything here to add or comment on or critique? Would love any feedback or further suggestions. Now back to your regular August programming of denying the approach of the fall semester…

Thanks to Megan Cook, whose Facebook query sparked an email discussion 
that prompted the creation of this post! 

One thought on “Countering Alternative Facts: Wikipedia in the Classroom

  1. I really appreciate you posting about your experience. I have been in touch with WikiEd and want to incorporate their infrastructure in my class on “gender and communication.” However, I haven’t made the time commitment to adjust my syllabus to accommodate the project. You’ve given me important ideas to think through as I prep to use WikiEd next term (hopefully).


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