January • Volume 43 • Issue 1

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Teaching Sociology with Wikipedia

Eryk Salvaggio and Jami Mathewson, Wiki Education Foundation

Our two previous articles (September/October 2014, December 2014) examined the beneficial outcomes of ASA’s Wikipedia initiative, including improvement in student research, writing, critical thinking, collaborative efforts, and information literacy skills. And while Wikipedia has had a positive impact on these sociology students, they have also had a positive impact on Wikipedia. Students have expanded the breadth of sociology coverage and are closing that content gap. The initiative has also brought more women onto Wikipedia, and diversifying the editor base helps broaden the represented topics and perspectives.

Before May 2014, if you researched “social cleansing” on Wikipedia, you would have found a sparse page with 192 words. The three sources identified three South American countries where social cleansing has been prominent. After student editors tackled the article during the fall 2014 term, it covers the various victims and sociological implications of social cleansing across three continents in more than 4,000 cited and sourced words.

Examples like this are why many sociology instructors are interested in teaching with Wikipedia. In this final article, we offer tips and resources for using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. You can also download a variety of materials at our website, www.wikiedu.org.

Set a Baseline of Student Understanding

It is critical for students to understand Wikipedia not only as a resource, but as an interactive community that works together to create that resource. They may see Wikipedia as a place to find information, rather than a tool for sharing the information they have learned and mastered. This tool includes an entire community of volunteers who deeply care about the content that comprises the website. We know that viewing Wikipedia as a communications tool can be a new idea for students, and so few will come to your course understanding the technical details or resources available to help them contribute. Good course outcomes come from helping your students understand key points about editing before diving in. To that end, the online training is a valuable resource, and designed specifically for university students. This training introduces Wikipedia editors, demonstrates the basics of editing, and guides students through early edits. It offers advice for selecting articles and points to helpful resources.

As an instructor, it is useful to frame the assignment early on as a distinct exercise from traditional student writing. Rather than taking sources and constructing an argument, for example, they will strive to explain a topic based exclusively on supporting facts. Students more inclined toward persuasive writing—like budding social scientists—value the opportunity to draw conclusions for their readers. Remind them that if they present a comprehensive account of available information, their readers will likely draw the same conclusion, even without the student explicitly connecting the dots.

Monitor Your Student Contributions to Wikipedia

The importance of viewing Wikipedia as a community as well as a resource is why it is crucial to let editors know who you are and what your class is doing. Wikipedia editors often have their areas of expertise and know the other editors who come in and work in that field. When a class shows up and starts editing, some Wikipedia editors can see this as an invasion that disrupts a carefully balanced process. Setting up a course page is a way to introduce yourself and your goals for the course, and to avoid being seen as disruptive. Course pages also serve as invitations for others to come to you. It becomes your home on Wikipedia where other editors as well as your students can interact. It becomes a meeting place to discuss student work, offer feedback, or, as is often the case, simply see what you are up to.

Keeping an eye on student work helps to make a good impression. This is particularly true of plagiarism problems. Address them quickly, or even assign students to seek out pre-existing plagiarism in a topic area. Not only will your students gain an understanding of what to look for and avoid, but their contributions also will be well-received. There are pure benefits for your students, too. Interacting in a shared space with peers offers more eyes on their questions and edits, and it offers a safe space to get help from their peers.

Setting up a course page is now a significantly improved process. The new Assignment Design Wizard tool offers support to educators looking to create a syllabus and a course page by doing both simultaneously. You can customize the type of course you’d like to lead, picking and choosing from smaller assignment pieces or adopting a default plan based on our recommendations. Whichever you choose, the end result is a course page with a complete syllabus that you can then further customize in detail, just as you would any other Wiki page.

You can find the Design Wizard online (wizard.wikiedu.org/). Getting started is quite simple, and even if you are uncertain of how to lead a Wikipedia assignment, the Wizard explains each option as you go.

Tips for Sociology Editing

Within Wikipedia, different communities set different goals for their articles. Sociology is a community. Because any human activity can be analyzed from a sociological perspective, most sociology editors would suggest new articles focus on topics that are explicitly sociological in focus. Alternatively, sociological research can be used to enhance an existing articles,” which may not be sociological, but include sociological elements including tracking perceptions over time.

Editing for sociology is an excellent opportunity for students to critically engage with sources. Students need to understand what makes a good, reliable source of information for a Wikipedia article. What makes an author, publisher, or book a good source? How does a student determine whether a minority view is being adequately represented? Many of these questions are weighed differently on a case-by-case basis. But the fundamental questions of examining quality data, determining neutrality, and engaging critically with information, are at the core of social science research.

Even for courses that have just begun, we can offer assistance to. We have a new brochure specifically addressing sociology article editing, which can be distributed to your classroom. We can help transform an existing assignment into one that is a good fit for Wikipedia. Send us a message at contact@wikiedu.org.

Best practices often come from keeping in mind what is best for everyone, and by asking students to reflect on what it means to be constructing and sharing knowledge within this particular ecosystem. This is also one of the greatest benefits of a Wikipedia assignment: challenging students to consider the impact of their writing in a space that has consequences beyond the classroom. This means taking ownership of the knowledge they share with the world, and the ways in which they describe that knowledge. Both are excellent topics of reflection for any sociology course.

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