Writing for Wikipedia in coursework

The other day I was recalling a required course at Caltech, a science communication writing class that is meant to help students learn how to communicate technical ideas. I remember writing for this class (although I can’t remember what I wrote about!) and in retrospect I’m saddened to think about how many hours I spent in college writing papers that nobody ever read again. There is a large pool of wasted efforts going into writing papers for college coursework.

It occurred to me that it would be wonderful if this sort of course actually had students choose Wikipedia pages that need attention and completely rewrite them. Writing a scientific/technical wikipedia topic addresses many of the same writing skills that science/engineering students need to learn: the article needs to be accessible as possible while remaining technically
accurate, it needs to cover a lot of different pieces of information
while maintaining coherence as a whole, and it needs to be well referenced (and, by implication (one hopes), well researched).

It has been pointed out to me that I’m not the first with this idea and that it has been done — and while they did run into some difficulties it also showed that writing with purpose motivated students to put more effort into their work. I think many of potential pitfalls could be addressed with appropriate foresight. Some concerns are:

  • students feeling pressure writing under the spotlight of the public eye
  • teachers feeling stressed at having to evaluate whether work is good for Wikipedia rather than focus on helping the student learn to write
  • social friction with Wikipedia as students make mistakes in wiki formatting and are unfamiliar with standard protocol

Here is my proposal that I think would address many concerns:

Set up a private mediawiki for the class (or whole school?) into which
all papers are written. Students can see each other’s papers should
they choose, but I don’t see that as a problem. Classes require
students to show their work to other students all the time, and in
this case it’s only if they choose to look and they don’t have to
evaluate each other (unless maybe you want that to be part of the
class). Papers are written into this wiki and instructors read them
there. You could even have a week or two “free for all” editing period near the end where students can improve each other’s articles.

At the end of the course, students can give consent for their work to go onto Wikipedia. It’s optional, but they don’t have to make the decision until after they’re done.

Assign someone a TA position as Wikipedia liason for the group – not a
writing expert, instead someone familiar with Wikipedia, like me. (After an iteration or two of this, prior students are likely to be interested in taking this TA position. If that doesn’t happen perhaps the course isn’t worth continuing.) This person has the following tasks:

  1. evaluate the students’ initial choices for topics to write on – check that the target article is poor quality and deserves some
    rewriting work
  2. once these are chosen, give notice on the Wikipedia talk pages the possibility of a page rewrite in the next few months.
  3. At the end of the course, for those students who give consent to pushing the work to Wikipedia, evaluate whether their versions are an improvement on the article. If there are sections of the article that were lost and should have be preserved, communicate with the students
    to integrate those into their work. If there are wiki style problems they can tell the students what to correct. Give notice on these pages about imminent rewrite. If there are wiki style problems they can tell the students what to correct.
  4. The liason can also communicate with relevant Wikiprojects if they doubt their own qualifications for determining the factual accuracy of the rewrite.
  5. Update the pages with the rewrites.

This can be a custom Wikipedia account eg. “MIT Wikipedia Liason”.

This way instructors can focus on improving the writing and not worry
about evaluating whether it’s good enough to integrate. Students won’t
be pressured to make their work public, it only happens if they decide
to do so. The liason makes sure the transition of material into
Wikipedia goes smoothly.

Writing a wikipedia article could be an option within a course rather
than a requirement (ie. an alternative to standard dead tree paper
writing) and this set-up could accommodate multiple instructors and
courses should multiple people be interested in offering this style of
writing as an option.

One thought on “Writing for Wikipedia in coursework

  1. Steve Trutane

    Madeleine: Excellent idea here. I’ve also been thinking about ways to harness untapped domain knowledge from the educated masses and capture it into Wikipedia. Regarding your proposal, seems to me that there are two components that need to be separated out more explicitly:

    1. teaching people how to write well about scientific or technical topics (this is the main reason why they’re taking the course), and
    2. training people to become competent Wikipedia contributors.

    Reviewing articles in Wikipedia to identify the poorly written or deficient ones would be a valuable exercise in and of itself and could be a key part of aim #1.

    Regarding my #2 point, there’s a lot of richness in Wikipedia authoring that could easily occupy a course all by itself. It’s important to not have this complexity get in the way of teaching effective writing. So my thinking is to have the Wikipedia contribution part be a separate class, where the depth of Wikipedia could be explored in the context of adding what the student had written in the prior class.

    The students in the second class would get a solid foundation about Wikipedia authoring best practices that they could take away and apply to other areas of interest. So rather than just a one shot deal in submitting one article, teach them to fish, as they say, and help cultivate competent, future Wikipedia editors.

    Learning the ins an outs of Wikipedia may not interest everyone that is interested in scientific writing (and vice versa), so it might be possible to have a non-author student in class #2 work with the writer in class #1 to incorporate their content. Ideally though, the same student that did the writing would then go on to the Wikipedia-focused course.

    It would indeed be very cool to see some University-level courses on Wikipedia authoring, eh?

    BTW, thanks for all of your great Wikipedia contributions. You could teach such a class!


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