What? Wikipedia in History Class?
as some readers may guess, I get mixed reactions whenever I share that I use Wikipedia in
my history classes. In fact, I use it for
more than just reading assignments.
I require my students to research
and write an article for Wikipedia
to become more responsible digital
citizens. And it is consistently one of
my most successful assignments. It
shows students the difference between
fact-only writing and analytical writing, it introduces research methods,
and it gives them more insight into
the workings of Wikipedia, so they
understand why they should or
should not use it in various situations.
The assignment itself consists of two
parts, each graded separately: writing
the article and monitoring and improving the article.
Pick a Topic
Choosing a topic is straightforward.
Students pick either a topic related to
history that does not have a substantial article already written about it or
a topic listed on the history stubs page
on Wikipedia—a listing of topics requiring expansion. Thousands of stub
articles exist to choose from, including U.S. history, history of science,
and military history.
I encourage students to find a topic
relevant to their interests, potential
careers, or even hobbies. Students have
written about various historical topics
related to psychology, sociology, engineering, sports, art, and theater, to name
a few. I must approve their topic before
they can start the assignment. I generally approve topics if I think enough secondary and tertiary sources are available
to allow for an adequate article.
By Jeremy Boggs
Lay the Groundwork
Then they research the topic and contribute approximately 500 words to
the article. The article must include
footnotes and reference at least two
published books as well as two external websites and link to at least two
other Wikipedia pages. Students must
use proper formatting for footnotes,
headings, lists, links, and other content, per Wikipedia formatting guidelines. They must also create a user
account and log in when editing. If an
article’s history does not include the
user name that each student sent to
me at the beginning of the semester,
they do not get credit.
Monitor and Improve the Article
After publishing, students must watch
the article, see if anyone contributes or
changes their article, and, if so, connect with these users. The goal is to
improve the article, either with other
users or individually. If their article
becomes flagged for deletion, students
must work to avoid having the article
deleted. Regardless of outcome, students must write a 500-word reflection on what happened to their article
and how their ideas about Wikipedia
changed during the semester.
Research the Material
The research process is, more or less,
the same kind of research process
one would expect when assigning a
short term paper. We discuss how to
find resources on particular topics
and how to brainstorm, create out-
lines, etc. I introduce students to the
librarian, who can assist them in their
search for sources. Wikipedia also
has policies about citations, so I make
sure students read the policy on citing
sources and verifiability. Addition-
ally, I discuss uses of different kinds of
sources and Wikipedia’s preference for
secondary and tertiary sources over
primary sources. Student articles must
not contain original research.
Write and Format the Article
Probably the trickiest part is showing
students how to write for Wikipedia.
We spend an entire class period reviewing the page “How to Edit a Wikipedia Article,” particularly the formatting section. Students can practice
formatting before working on their
articles at Wikipedia’s Tutorial (see
Resources at the end of this article). I
demonstrate onscreen how to do different kinds of formatting: footnotes,
headings, unordered lists, ordered
lists, internal and external links, and
inserting an image. A useful guide
detailing formats for specific content
elements is also available.
Publish and Participate
The assignment does not end once the
article is published. After publication,
students must watch for and participate in any changes taking place in
their article, for good or ill. I show
them specifically two sections of their
article to watch:
History page. I encourage students not
to revert things immediately, but to
take the time to look at changes, determine if they help or hurt the article,
and take the appropriate action.
Talk page. Here, students have to defend their articles or learn from other
Wikipedians about how to improve
their articles. Community members
talk about the article in question, offering suggestions for improvement
or declaring reasons the article seems
irrelevant and should be deleted.
Often, students’ articles are recommended for deletion or their changes