About a decade ago, Amin Azzam, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, often told his medical students not to research health information on Wikipedia out of concern for the website’s reliability. But a student once looked at him “like he was crazy,” which made him rethink that stance.
“Look, we all go there first as students,” the student told Azzam. “Why are you fighting us? Why don’t you help us make it better?”
Azzam considered the wisdom in the student’s comment: the free encyclopedia’s entries are written in a way that students understand. They also offer an accessible first pass on new topics or a review of forgotten topics. Besides, he decided, many patients rely on Wikipedia to research medical concerns, and doctors who ignore that reality are fooling themselves. He decided to design and teach an elective course at the medical school on Wikipedia editing.
“At the time, it was way too wacko of an idea to make it a requirement for all med students to edit Wikipedia,” Azzam said. UCSF’s School of Medicine has since incorporated a Wikipedia-editing assignment into a required core course for all medical students. The assignment maps to a part of the curriculum designed to foster students’ identities as physicians who embody an “inquiry habit of mind,” which is defined as a “practice that is hard to give up.” Students who enjoy the assignment are encouraged to enroll in the elective course that focuses entirely on Wikipedia editing.
Azzam is part of a growing trend of professors who incorporate Wikipedia-editing assignments into their classes. In the process, these instructors are rendering old arguments against the crowdsourced website moot, enhancing their students’ digital literacy skills and broadening their educator roles from the classroom to society. But curricular efforts to increase students’ facility with Wikipedia aside, some still discourage students from citing it as a source in research.
When someone researches a topic online, the subject’s Wikipedia entry is often returned as a top result. The crowdsourced platform is well known for its depth and breadth, though also for its flaws, including uneven geographic, historical, gender, racial, sexual identity and cultural representation.
Professors who make room for Wikipedia in their classrooms seize opportunities to engage students in conversations about how knowledge is constructed and shared, according to Diana Park, science librarian at Oregon State University. Her research, conducted with Laurie Bridges, instruction and outreach librarian and associate professor at Oregon State, is informed by their experiences teaching a two-credit course at the university that helps students think about information equity through a Wikipedia lens.
“The entire course is about Wikipedia, but we also use Wikipedia as a larger placeholder for information on the internet in general,” Park said.
In a Wikipedia-editing course, students hone research and digital literacy skills while writing and editing articles on the platform. Instructors use their subject-matter knowledge to evaluate the quality of student contributions, while emphasizing values such as knowledge sharing and diverse viewpoints. Wiki Education provides faculty members with teaching and editing resources and support.
Students also learn skills that help them detect the quality of information on the site. WikiProject Medicine, for example, ranks Wikipedia’s health-related articles by importance—top, high, mid, low—and grades them. Those rankings, taken together, stratify the website’s health-related content by importance and quality, Azzam said. Students also learn about an article’s “talk page,” where others discuss its merits.
Students who edit Wikipedia articles as part of coursework often find it “so much more meaningful than writing a paper that only their professor sees,” Park said.
Students bear witness to their impact from a course dashboard that keeps score, as a scoreboard might for a team. For example, in Azzam’s most recent course, which ran from late August through September of this year, the 165 students added approximately 1,440 edits, 100,000 words and 886 references to Wikipedia articles that have since been viewed 1.16 million times.
“For some students, this is the biggest thing they’ve done in their careers,” Azzam said, noting that his students inspired him. “The global public health impact can be profound.”
When Wikipedia-editing classes at institutions around the world and across all subjects are considered together, the numbers are noteworthy. At the time of this article was written, for example, 6,040 students enrolled in 360 fall 2022 Wikipedia-editing classes had added 1,430,000 words, contributed 14,900 references, edited 3,140 articles and written 136 new articles, which together received 89 million pageviews.
“There is a lot of wisdom in the sentence ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’” Azzam said.
To be sure, the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, is on record concerning how students should use—and, importantly, not use—Wikipedia.
“I don’t think people should cite it, and I don’t think people should cite Britannica, either,” Wales said in 2005. “Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level.”
Many instructors agree, including some who replied to a query on Twitter, who wrote, “quoting it in papers (and thus having to cite it) is … not a good look” and “Good place to start. Bad place to finish. Follow the citations.”
Instructors who are interested in incorporating Wikipedia-editing assignments into their courses may encounter challenges. For example, professors who are skilled at writing academic prose may need to learn to craft prose that is suitable for general audiences, Park said.
Simson Garfinkel, a professional lecturer in data science at George Washington University, incorporated Wikipedia editing into a course he taught. But some of his students were flummoxed by the open-ended assignment to make a significant contribution to Wikipedia.
“For many topics, the reason that Wikipedia articles are short or nonexistent is that there is not much in the way of authoritative, citable, secondary sources that meet Wikipedia’s citation standards,” Garfinkel wrote. “Students wanted quantifiable metrics—how many words do we need to contribute to get an A?”
Despite challenges, Garfinkel is an enthusiastic proponent of teaching with Wikipedia, especially for science, technology, engineering and math students who benefit from learning science communication skills.
Park encourages students to edit articles that align with their interests, but that presents challenges for students whose interests are considered unnotable by Wikipedia standards. Park recalls a student who wanted to write about lemon bars and other recipes that have been traditionally seen as feminine pursuits. The student noted that someone else had tried without success to create such an article. They worked together to bolster the case for the article and succeeded in getting the article accepted. Still, the process can frustrate a student, and there is no guarantee of success.
Asking students to write a new article is more work than asking them to edit an already existing page. But before students write or edit, they need instruction on what information to include and how they should search for that information. Instructors help students when they offer guidance about research methods, the kind of information to add and acceptable sources. Instructors who are familiar with the Wikipedia ecosystem are better positioned to lead a class through the process.
“You think it’s really simple just to edit or add a couple of sentences, but there’s a lot of work going into those few sentences,” Park said.
Beyond the Classroom
Savannah Shumock, a second-year medical student at UC San Francisco, had only ever known teachers who warned her to steer clear of Wikipedia—until she enrolled in Azzam’s class that required her to edit Wikipedia articles.
“It was quite eye-opening as to how inaccurate some of the information could be once we looked at it closely,” Shumock said. “One sentence … had defined an arrhythmia as a heart rate that was just too fast, which is wildly incorrect.” A runner or someone who is stressed may have a fast heart rate without having an arrhythmia, she said. A classmate corrected the entry to state that an arrhythmia is an irregular heart rate.
Shumock also discovered an article about childhood blindness with no information about eye screening, so she added that to the article. She also looks for ways to make articles more inclusive by, for example, adding information for women who were not assigned female at birth to articles on women’s health. On pages about specific medical conditions, she adds insight into how low-income settings may impact disease progression. Such efforts, she said, are important because Wikipedia may be someone’s only source for this information.
Editing Wikipedia articles is “something I could see myself doing again,” Shumock said now that the class has finished. “I feel a sense of responsibility to correct misinformation with proper sources.”