Vol. 43, No. 2, April 2014
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Wikipedia in the History of Science Classroom
by Sage Ross
In 2008, as a grad student just starting my dissertation, I wrote a piece of Wikipedia evangelism for this Newsletter: “Wikipedia and the History of Science.” I would talk about Wikipedia, a lot. I would try to convince people that Wikipedia is something that’s interesting and important and worth engaging with, and the default reaction was skepticism. That’s not an argument I have to make any more. At a late-night workshop at the Boston meeting—and even more so in halls throughout the weekend—folks wanted to jump straight into discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia and how wiki editing might fit into their classes.
For the last few years I’ve been working for Wikimedia Foundation—the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia—trying to make it easier for Wikipedia and the academic world to work together. Scholars can rarely devote significant time to writing Wikipedia articles themselves. (N.B., I completed several Featured articles on Wikipedia, but no dissertation.) But *Wikipedia assignments for students* are great opportunities both to engage students and to improve Wikipedia.
Wikipedia now has a fairly robust support system for professors who want to run Wikipedia assignments. You can go through an online training course that covers best practices for designing Wikipedia assignments, that walks through a sample syllabus for the type of writing project that can replace a term paper, and that shows you how to use the course page system, which lets you and the rest of the Wikipedia community follow the progress of your students. To try this online training, put “WP:EDUCATORS” into the search box on English Wikipedia. The course page system is also available in several other language versions of Wikipedia.
Several historians of science are using Wikipedia assignments in classes this term, and I’ve been keeping an eye on their students’ progress. One student just started a new article on Galileo’s “Discourse on the Tides.” If they get nominated soon after creation, new articles can have a turn in the “Did you know…” section of Wikipedia’s main page, where over the course of about six hours they will get anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of hits, depending on how compelling the featured blurb is. Another student is compiling a bibliography to expand the bare coverage of “Genetics” and the “Origin of Species.” And a group of students will be working together on improving the “History of Ecology” article. Combined, those two articles average more than 3,000 views per month, and right now they aren’t even very good.
Your first term running a Wikipedia assignment has a fairly steep learning curve, as you’ll need to learn enough about how Wikipedia works to help your students through the tricky parts. After that, it gets quite a bit easier and you’ll start developing a sense for which topics your students can fruitfully take on. There is no shortage of history of science articles to start or improve. And if anything, history of technology and history of medicine are even more underdeveloped on Wikipedia. The effort that you already put into teaching students about good sources and how to dive into the rich literature of our field will soon be reflected in Wikipedia’s content.
Although only a small fraction of the students themselves are likely to become long-term Wikipedia contributors, most will prefer a Wikipedia assignment in place of a conventional research paper—even though Wikipedia projects take considerably more work on their part. Having an audience beyond just their professor or TA, and a sense of broader purpose, motivates students to take their work seriously. And they are right to do so. During the first term of the Wikipedia Education Program pilot project that I was working on in late 2010, one student overhauled the rudimentary coverage of what he thought was a pretty niche topic: “National Democratic Party (Egypt)” (the ruling party of Egypt since 1978). A few months later, the Egyptian revolution was underway and the article was being read thousands of times per day, forming the (unacknowledged) background for countless news reports and helping people all over the world understand the historical context for events in Tahrir Square and beyond. Another student was surprised to find herself assigned to read a Wikipedia article—the one she had written for another class the previous term, unbeknownst to the professor! Those are the dramatic examples, but good Wikipedia contributions from students can and do have a significant and sustained impact.
If you’re interested in putting together a Wikipedia assignment and would like advice, or if you’d like to be part of a mailing list for teaching with Wikipedia in the history of science, please get in touch with me: email@example.com.