Students should contribute Wikipedia content

By Tyler Davis

No college student would include Wikipedia in a bibliography and expect a good grade. Because it’s publicly edited, the website has earned a bad reputation as a source that doesn’t belong in the classroom. But the same reason teachers dismiss it could be used to argue its merits as a valuable academic tool.

Some college educators have put their students to work behind the scenes of Wikipedia. Students at Central College in Iowa enrolled in the Psychology of Religion class have the option of creating a Wikipedia page rather than a final paper, and students at the University of Freiburg in Germany translate Wikipedia articles from German to English for a language credit.

Although Wikipedia may not be the best source for an academic paper, it is great for practicing  and applying academic writing skills in a way that extends beyond traditional academia. College educators have an opportunity to get their students involved by taking work done in the classroom and integrating it into one of the largest academic resources in the world.

Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world, outranking Twitter and Amazon, according to Alexa web traffic rankings. It gives students a unique opportunity to be published on a website that gets 11 million views per hour, and all they have to do is create an account.

On Wikipedia, quality of work matters much more than prestige or seniority. Although longtime contributors have more influence, anyone can make edits that will remain on a page as long as they are properly written and researched.

Some colleges even have student organizations for Wikipedia editors that are dedicated to contributing to the site and advocating for freedom of information. The first such organization in the U.S. was founded in 2010 at the University of Michigan.

Involving students in Wikipedia is an obvious solution to multiple problems. Teachers can create assignments that require students to improve Wikipedia, and the website gains new editors with the tools and skills necessary to create encyclopedic content. Students learn valuable writing, editing and research skills they can use in their post-academic careers.

The number of active Wikipedia editors—or Wikipedians—has been steadily declining since 2007, when the English-language Wikipedia had almost 43,000 editors who made at least 5 edits per month. As of September, the number is down to approximately 31,000. Wikipedia has become a household name, yet it is struggling to acquire and keep community members to update and revise content.

Young people make up a large portion of regular Internet users, and that gives us a certain responsibility to not just consume, but contribute content. The vast majority of students have probably used Wikipedia at one point, and for the most part, no one is getting paid for those views. Although the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent nonprofit organization, has a few employees, it is mostly maintained by volunteers around the world.

As a frequent Wikipedia editor, I have gained a renewed interest in academic writing and have learned a lot from having a community of collaborators edit and add to the content I create. Writing for an audience is more challenging and rewarding than writing for a teacher. The articles I create and contribute are read by a large audience, and while my contributions are minimal, I can take pride in them.

Information has never been so easy to access on such a large scale, something many of us take for granted. As people with the privilege of going to college, we have an opportunity to share our knowledge and skills while simultaneously strengthening those skills with the help of Wikipedia’s community and audience. The Internet has the potential to create educational communities and learning opportunities that were previously unimaginable, yet higher education has been very slow to discover how the Internet can revolutionize education. It’s time for it to catch up.