Wikipedia in my classroom

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It’s the end of March and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass-Amherst), that means midterms. For two semesters in a row, students in my Intro to Political Theory and American Political Thought classes have participated in the Wikipedia Education Program. Their midterm assignment is simple: write an encyclopedia style essay with at least 10 references to be published on Wikipedia. The introduction of Wikipedia into classroom comes with a whole set of new challenges – for both me and my students – picking topics, using wiki mark-up language, new citation rules, as well as the old familiar problem: how to conduct good research. As the deadline for the assignment approaches, and the emails pile up, I am reminded of why these challenges are worth it.

Edward Erikson
Edward Erikson

Wikipedia is always present in the classroom – whether it’s invited to attend or not. Students often draw from Wikipedia as a primary source. Too often, it is the place where research begins rather than ends and a semester rarely goes by without a minor or major case of plagiarism. Last semester, when I first introduced the Wikipedia project, a student asked: “how are we supposed to find a topic if it’s not on Wikipedia?” The Wikipedia assignment forces students out of their comfort zone. It pushes them to look beyond the easy sources and take a new approach to research (a new approach that is really an old approach). Good research begins with the search for a question.
The first task and the first struggle students confront is how to find a topic. The assignment breaks students’ dependence on easy answers and familiar subjects and reaffirms the value of the search.  Wikipedia offers some resources to help identify stubs and missing articles, but many times students discover ample noteworthy material by digging through Congressional records, public policy briefs and Supreme Court cases. By placing Wikipedia at the center of the assignment, it overcomes the fundamental concern that nearly all professors share: Wikipedia is NOT a source. Making Wikipedia the end, not the means, revivifies the research experience. It transforms Wikipedia from a problem to a solution.
Many of the students I meet view college as an obligation. But higher education is an extraordinary privilege. In the U.S., just 30 percent of adults over 25 have a college degree. And in the world, it’s less than 7 percent. The opportunity for education comes with the responsibility to produce and share knowledge. These are values shared among faculty and graduate students, but often ignored in undergraduate teaching. Wikipedia helps to break down the barriers between knowledge consumption and production.  It allows students to share their work with a global audience. And it helps students to cultivate the authority of authorship and become more discerning consumers and producers of information.
Students walk away from class with a deeper understanding of research. They walk away with the skills and comfort to edit, revise and add content to Wikipedia. And they walk away with the pride of publication. The Wikipedia assignment opens our classroom to the world. It gives new meaning to the work that we, as students and faculty, do in the classroom and in college.
Edward Erikson teaches Intro to Political Theory and American Political Thought at the University of Massachusetts.  He was twice nominated for the UMass Distinguished Teaching Award in 2009-10 and 2010-11.  He received his M.A. in Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at UMass Amherst.  His dissertation explores tensions in democratic theory and practices surrounding homelessness in America.  He can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @EdwardErikson.

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Hello! In your post you focus in many important points and benefits for using Wikipedia in a classroom. Wikipedia editing assignments cultivate students’ research and writing skills. Students are becoming producers of Wikipedia’s content, while the way they consume this content changes.
However an editing assignment in Wikipedia also involves interaction with other Wikipedians and participation in a community process. From your experience what is your opinion about this interaction and the impact it has on students, on Wikipedians and on you?

What inspires the most about this is the way of making Wikipedia an end not a means!
Beautiful initiative.

As a current student having just survived this most arduous task, I do feel a sense of accomplishment – at the end of a long stream of blood (well, no blood really), sweat and tears. Writing in html, deciphering, and”…digging through Congressional records, public policy briefs and Supreme Court cases” has been incredibly challenging and I will be a better researcher as a result. I look forward to seeing how the article progresses if anyone is ever interested in modifying/editing the case that I chose. For me, dissecting the quagmire of legal mumbo jumbo that I am not familiar with… Read more »

I want to thank you for your project. Too many pages are either developed with erroneous information, or are simply written by someone who shows little actual knowledge of the topic. Wikipedia is forbidden fruit for most college courses. The US is the only developed nation in the world that has no access to an organized “Open University” education resource. Although there are universities that offer courses, there is no central hub to access those courses through which would allow students to pull the courses together in an Open U format for the purpose of getting credits. I hope you… Read more »

I was the first Campus Ambassador to work with Ed last semester, and I can attest to the fact that he is a worthy instructor and very passionate about the materials. Having known him from a prior class where he was the Teaching Assistant, I jumped at the opportunity of being able to work with him, as he is quite a fun person to be with. What he didn’t mention, was the fact that the first class he worked with was fifth overall in the amount of material added to the site. This is quite an impressive feat, an I… Read more »

Ed.Am impressed with your new class room initiatuive. From the remarks your students think it a valuable tool for college studies. Is this instruction technique really a first? or a rediscovery in the classroom. As always the very best for you. Gramps