Engaged Students Learning and Wikipedia – Developing Information Literacy and Finding a Purpose
Zachary J. McDowell, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
University of Illinois at Chicago
danah boyd (2014) points out in “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” students are being told to “avoid Wikipedia” and do their own research. This is particularly troubling when, as a recent study by the Stanford History Education Group stated, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” More recently, boyd wondered whether media literacy might have backfired, and that the critical lens that we tried to instill in them might have helped confuse information value in a post-factual, fast-paced, digital world. boyd is right: if students’ takeaway from the lessons of critical information literacy is that they need to just “do research” but “avoid Wikipedia” then we might need to redefine our approach.
At the same time the general consensus from both instructional design and pedagogy-focused experts is that students want to feel empowered, want to feel like they are producing rather than just consuming, and need to feel they are making a difference in the world rather than merely learning about it. The challenge here is twofold, both to rethink information literacy in an environment obscured by a variety of “fake” news sources, and to find ways to engage students in a way that they are engaged and productive.
An answer to this challenge might be hidden in the very thing we have been told to prohibit: students read Wikipedia every day but are told “don’t use it.”
Abstinence-only Wikipedia education simply does not work. Teaching students to use Wikipedia may help to teach exactly the type of skills we have been desperately striving for in the student-centered and engaged way that we are trying to implement.
In addition to mounting anecdotal evidence I conducted a mixed methods research study in 2016 with help from Wiki Education using surveys and focus groups to study attitudes, context, and skills transfer. The research suggests that students who engage with Wikipedia-based assignments are not only learning and experiencing information literacy in much more effective ways but also are more motivated by and prouder of their work than a traditional assignment.
Surveys employed a variety of quantitative and qualitative questions administered online. A total of 1627 students and 97 instructors completed the surveys, and thirteen focus groups were conducted in participating classrooms. The full research report and all of the data, codebooks, and other documentation from the study are freely licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Results were exceptionally positive. Both students and instructors valued Wikipedia assignments more for learning digital literacy, critical thinking, learning to write for the general public, and learning about reliability of online sources.
Respondents’ perceptions of Wikipedia were also found to positively change after having edited Wikipedia. While many students expressed having perceived the space as unreliable prior to editing Wikipedia (as they have been told “don’t use it”), their perception shifted through completing the Wikipedia assignment to show more trust in the reliability of Wikipedia as an information source. When pressed about this newfound trust, they responded with statements like “trust but verify” and “because I can check the sources.” These responses map to the ACRL framework for information literacy, particularly when engaging understandings of systemic biases, construction of information, and value of information.
In addition to finding value in learning digital/information literacy, critical research, teamwork, and technology skills, students also reported that they were proud of their work, spent more time, and were more satisfied with their class assignment than with traditional writing assignments. More than just learning topics and skills, they were motivated by the project.
Teaching with Wikipedia shifts some of the power and responsibility to the students, engaging them to take responsibility for something “bigger than them,” engaging students in portions of “Learner-Centered Teaching.” This method, a key component in critical pedagogy, emphasizes that students engaging actively in their learning will foster transferrable skills such as critical and reflective thinking due to their active involvement in their own learning process. Wikipedia-based assignments share a significant overlap in this area, as students in the focus groups have offered up narratives that these exercises felt empowering, shifted their perspectives on Wikipedia and the evaluation of knowledge in general, and helped them feel like they were making a difference rather than simply producing a paper for their instructor to read and “throw in the recycle bin.”
Students want to feel like they are producing knowledge, not merely consuming it. Numerous efforts have been undertaken across disciplines to engage students as producers and partners, often with great success. With my own students (as well as those in focus groups) a common theme is that writing Wikipedia articles feel like they are “contributing” rather than writing a paper that “goes into the recycling bin.” They’re not wrong – maybe in elementary school your “A” paper might have gone on the fridge for a few weeks, but in college the only one who reads your papers is your professor.
Students have more power of production than ever before, able to send their messages to the world at any time – except in the typical classroom, where their work is often only seen by an audience of one. While writing or sharing a message on Facebook might not meet the standard for academic authorship but it does allow the student to engage and embody a production/consumption model lacking in most classrooms. Utilizing Wikipedia-based assignments helps to bring the best of these worlds together by both expecting an academic-level rigor for writing quality and empowering the student to feel as if they are producing something that is shareable.
Students want to feel like they are “making a difference” in the world. According to the Vanderbilt Center for teaching, engaging students with service learning “seek[s] to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for [the students] themselves.” Through learning about systemic biases on Wikipedia, students can identify content gaps and make immediate changes to the source of information they see at the top of their searches.
Wikipedia is a decentralized commons-based peer production community that both participates in the “don’t trust, do research” mantra of the potentially-problematic “information literacy” that we have fed numerous students, but also follows a set of rules that relies on, understands, and engages with more traditional epistemological foundations. Through engaging with its rules and processes, students experience information construction, and learn the language and rules of information literacy first-hand. Additionally, it is known to students as a commonplace source of information, giving them a public space that they feel they can make meaningful contributions to that they can feel proud of and see the effects of. For all of these reasons and more, this research illustrates the need to shift the question from whether or not Wikipedia should be allowed in your classroom over to how your classroom can best utilize Wikipedia.