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Advice on Using Wikipedia in Colleges and Universities

The following is advice for educators (primarily professors or university lecturers) on using Wikipedia on a college level-course. I hope it is also of use to those working in educational technology. And it may perhaps be of interest to students who are taking such courses.

This advice is based on my experience with Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, a Wikipedia project that I coordinated in Spring 2008, as part of a course on Latin American literature at the University of British Columbia.

Wikipedia can be a rewarding and productive part of the college curriculum. It can also be a challenge and, undoubtedly, a disappointment. Because this is such a popular and successful site, one which you and your students have probably used many times, it can be easy to assume that you know how it works. But beware: there is much still to learn.

Create an account[edit]

Wikipedia is not, I think, something you can leave to the students. You are going to have to be an active participant. So you should create an account and be prepared to work alongside the students, rather than simply directing them.

The key to Wikipedia is collaboration. The students will find themselves collaborating with many other Wikipedians. And you will be collaborating with them, and with the students, too.

Moreover, for all its apparent (and often, actual) anarchy, in practice Wikipedia is in fact a very code-bound institution, which has its own culture and its own mores. If you choose to use Wikipedia in the classroom, you will inevitably be giving up a fair amount of your own autonomy as a professor.

You should therefore learn how Wikipedia works.


The best way of learning how Wikipedia works is to start editing it yourself.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia. You should start early and spend some significant time finding your way around. There is masses of online documentation and help; in fact, there is probably too much and soon you will find yourself lost and/or overawed.

You can find out about Wikipedia's basic principles at Wikipedia:Five pillars. You can explore the help pages. You can read Wikipedia:How to edit a page. There is an Editing FAQ and a Contributing FAQ as well as a tutorial. (See? There is if anything too much guidance on offer.) But there is no substitute for experience and practice, for getting stuck in.

You should probably not even decide to use Wikipedia in the classroom before you yourself have spent several weeks editing, and notched up several hundred edits of your own.

You should take the time to familiarize yourself with Wikipedia even if you already know your way around Wiki software that you may have used elsewhere. What makes Wikipedia different is that there are thousands of other editors active on the site at any one time.

As well as editing articles, by clicking on the "edit this page" tab that is at the top of almost every page on the site, you should also explore and start interacting on the "talk" pages (click the "discussion" tab), drop notes on other people's "user" pages, and spend some time on the "Wikipedia" pages where decisions are made and policies formulated.

At some point you will probably run into conflict with other users: they will disagree with your changes, revert your edits, and perhaps leave warnings on your talk page, quoting your breach of one guideline or another. Indeed, you are probably not sufficiently experienced with Wikipedia until you have had to deal with several such conflict situations.

Enroll and announce[edit]

Once (or if) you have decided to proceed with a Wikipedia-based assignment, you should enroll as an educational assignment, and announce the fact far and wide.

WikiProjects are groups of Wikipedians who have gathered together to tend to articles related to a particular topic: South America, Critical Theory, Literature, or whatever. Most of these projects, however, are at best only sporadically active. There is even a WikiProject on classroom coordination, designed specifically to help educators on Wikipedia. Over the course of Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, however, this project seemed to be entirely dormant.

You can also, however, frame your own project as a WikiProject. This is an alternative to using your own user page as the focus of the enterprise. I recommend this: it in fact makes little practical difference, but it is in sync with Wikipedia norms and culture, and so adds a form of legitimacy. When Wikipedia gets a group of editors together with a set of common goals, they form a WikiProject. There is nothing to stop you from doing the same.

Give your project a snazzy title, why don't you? Set up your project, and set up a shortcut (this is a Wikipedia sine qua non). Now you're almost open for business.

Goals and methodology[edit]

But what exactly are you open for business to do? It's worth considering your goals and methodology. There are a number of options, and here are two of the most important:

  1. Whether you simply want your students to write something (perhaps anything), which you will subsequently grade on your own terms, or whether you want their articles to go through one or more of the Wikipedia review processes.
  2. Whether all their work is to be directly in Wikipedia "mainspace" (where the site's regular articles reside), or whether they are first to write elsewhere, and only subsequently to transfer their work to the mainspace.

These issues are related, in that they both concern the amount of feedback (as well as collaboration and criticism) to which your students and their work will be exposed.

As soon as anybody contributes to Wikipedia, they immediately open their work to public scrutiny. Indeed, every time you click "edit this page," you will see the text "If you don't want your writing to be edited mercilessly or redistributed for profit by others, do not submit it." Wikipedia is a very large stage on which students can publish their work for general benefit, but it is also an arena in which they can be exposed to a noisy and hostile audience, who will also want at times to get in on the act.

But the presence of this community, the fact that Wikipedia is a collaborative process in which your writing is no longer fully your own (a fact enshrined in the site's strictures against "article ownership") is also an incredible resource.

Ideally, other Wikipedia editors will become interested in your project, and even actively support it. Review processes, from Peer Review to the Good Article nomination process or even the Featured Article review process are all excellent ways by which your students can receive feedback on their work, and (most often) constructive feedback. More generally, however, Wikipedia editors are drawn to any place there is activity. If students write their articles offline, they will not benefit from the interest and advice of other Wikipedians.

Moreover, if students upload pre-written essays, it is most likely that their work will not satisfy the format or genre of a Wikipedia entry. Uploading pre-written essays is perhaps the easiest way to ensure that the students' work will meet resistance, and quite possibly be deleted from the encyclopedia, perhaps almost as soon as it has been added.


Certain types of work are welcome on Wikipedia; others are not.

The ideal Wikipedia article is a well-written distillation of secondary sources on a given topic. It does not advance a thesis or argument.

In this sense, the genre of the encyclopedia article is very different from that of the typical student assignment. It will have no introduction or conclusion; rather, it will have a lead followed by a series of elements that are all descriptive or expository, designed to explain, not convince.

Any contribution that does not obey these conventions will very quickly be under fire for what in Wikipedia terminology is described variously as original research or flouting the site's neutral point of view policy.

Though Wikipedia does prize fine writing, clarity, and precision, it values even more what it terms verifiability, that is, the use of high-quality or "reliable" sources. This insistence on sources is largely an understandable response to the fact that anyone can contribute to an article: in lieu of expertise or credentials, Wikipedia relies on verifiability. As a result, however, Wikipedia articles often have far more citations than is customary in academic writing.

It is best, then, to think of a Wikipedia assignment as primarily a research assignment. Students will also learn about writing, revision, collaboration, and copyright, as well as about Wikipedia itself. But above all they will have to research their topic in detail, and to evaluate the sources they find.


Wikipedia articles take time. The encyclopedia's development is incremental: it is as much process as product. Moreover, students will need time to learn the site's idiosyncracies: both the details of its mark-up (though this soon becomes fairly intuitive, and in any case other editors will step in to help), but also and above all the particular expectations implicit in the genre.

A Wikipedia assignment is most likely going to occupy the entire semester; students need to be encouraged to start as early as possible, at least on the research element of the assignment, and most likely also on the writing.

As students generally, and sometimes for entirely good reasons, tend to postpone doing assessed work until the latest possible moment, you should build in incentives to help them hit the ground running.

(If there were two flaws in the way I implemented Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, this was the first.)

For instance, they could have a date by which to create their account, to make their first edit, to construct a bibliography (which they could put on the relevant article talk page), and so on. You may also want to require that they make a certain number of edits (however minor) each week. Some part of the planning that went into "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem" can be found here, but much more could have been done.

You may also want to use Wikipedia's own review processes to mark student progress. The stages an article may take might be as follows:

  1. Creation
  2. "Did You Know?", for articles that have been created or significantly expanded within the previous five days
  3. B-class, a fairly informal assessment system loosely coordinated by Wikiprojects. You can make your own call here, if you want.
  4. Good article nomination, a more rigorous assessment system, in which another editor evaluates an article according to a standard set of criteria
  5. Peer review, an opportunity to receive feedback from a number of different editors
  6. Featured article candidacy, a lengthy and sometimes involved review process to determine Wikipedia's "best articles"

Your students may not go through all these stages in all cases: they may well be editing articles that already exist, and perhaps have already been assessed; and there is no requirement, for instance, that a featured article should have gone through peer review or the good article process, although it is recommended. You may also, of course, have decided that your assignment will not involve the good article or featured article processes.


Wikipedia is not a solitary endeavour: far from it.