By Mark K. Cassell of Kent State University Wiki_Education_Foundation_logo.svg

It’s a problem nearly everyone who teaches political science confronts at one time or another: how to effectively teach a controversial topic. Topics like same-sex marriage or gun control are charged with emotion. Students arrive with entrenched beliefs that undermine efforts to foster critical thinking skills. It was a challenge I faced when I put together an upper-division course on the politics of inequality: creating a space where students felt comfortable critically examining the political causes and consequences of inequality without things degenerating into a brawl.

The spring before I taught the course I attended a workshop at the annual Midwest Political Science Association meeting, on teaching with Wikipedia. Like other faculty, I was skeptical of using the online encyclopedia in the classroom preferring (and requiring) students to draw on more academic sources for their assignments. But the workshop wasn’t about Wikipedia as a scholarly source. Instead, the workshop described: 1) how a student could research and author their own Wikipedia contribution; 2) the pedagogical benefits from such an assignment; and 3) the resources available to faculty who want to include the Wikipedia writing assignment into their classes. In this blogpost, I describe how I incorporated the assignment and I summarize some results from the course.

The Progression of the Wikipedia Assignment

I divided the Wikipedia assignment into a series of short tasks and quick “how-to” lectures integrated throughout the course. Class time was set aside to introduce students to Wikipedia’s content, rules and norms, and, most importantly, the technical knowledge needed to complete the assignment. The first two weeks were dedicated to introducing Wikipedia editing techniques and what makes a good or bad article. Students registered an account with Wikipedia, practiced using the Talk Pages (where you can comment on a page) and completed an online training course.

Once students were familiar with the technical aspects of Wikipedia, attention focused on selecting a topic. In addition to one-on-one meetings, I found it helpful to spend class time brainstorming ideas, demonstrating what a “stub[1] ” is, and exploring how one might search for a topic. In the third week, to practice their editing techniques, students were required to add one or two sentences to an existing Wikipedia article backed up with a citation to an appropriate source.

By the sixth week, students posted a first draft of their article in their “Sandbox,” a space to experiment with different versions of an edit. Drafts consisted of three to four paragraphs and followed the format of a Wikipedia article. Once posted, each student was required to provide feedback on two other student drafts in the Talk Pages linked to the Sandbox pages. Students incorporated peer reviews and my comments into rewrites of their draft articles. By the eighth week of class, drafts were moved from the sandbox to Wikipedia’s main website. Once on the main website, students conducted another round of peer reviews. During the final weeks of the semester, students revised their Wikipedia contribution and presented their contribution to the class.

The Resources Available to Faculty and Our Students

The Wiki Education Foundation provided two resources that proved invaluable: first, an online assignment management Dashboard. Once they were registered with Wikipedia, students signed on to a private course Dashboard which enables the instructor to see whether students complete the online training and tasks. The Dashboard also facilitates the peer review system by enabling students to click another student’s edits. The Dashboard helped track of the progress of each student. A second resource offered by the Wiki Education Foundation was the assistance of an experienced Wikipedia Content Expert who works for the Wiki Education Foundation. The assistant provided technical support, monitored students’ Wikipedia contributions, and answered students’ questions. Knowing someone was there with technical expertise increased the students’ confidence they could complete the project.

Given the topics covered in this class – racial and gender inequality, organized labor, minimum wage – it is not surprising the class generated heated and intense discussions. However, the Wikipedia assignment mediated several challenges that typically occur when teaching about controversial topics.

Being required to comment on the draft edits of others in a semi-private way reduced some of the anxiety that comes from talking about a controversial issue publicly in class. By semi-private, I mean that although anyone could view a peer’s feedback, comments were written on Talk Pages connected to a Sand Box and were viewed primarily by the commenter and the author. Comments were made electronically without seeing the reaction from the full class or even from the student author. Wikipedia is built on peer reviews and the edits of others. Seeing and participating in the process first-hand raised the class comfort level and helped foster a peer review culture in class. Peer reviews also enabled students to see the progress (or lack of progress) of others – that also helped break down barriers. One student acknowledged that she was (pleasantly) surprised to see how much another student was struggling with the same technical issues she was.

Pedagogical Benefits

The power relationship between student and instructor can also hamper learning; students (and some faculty) are reluctant to challenge the “teacher as the disseminator of knowledge” metaphor. The Wikipedia assignment disrupted that metaphor in several ways. First off, it was clear at the outset that I, the instructor, was not going to be the disseminator of knowledge when it came to editing Wikipedia. Students understood early on I had less experience editing websites than they did. Working with students one-on-one fostered a sense of mutual learning and teaching.

Second, when working on a typical research paper, students understand that the primary audience is the instructor. This can easily reinforce the power relationship between student and faculty that hampers learning. In the case of the Wikipedia assignment, the audience is the instructor, the class, and the world. Students very much understood they were writing for others – their parents, their friends, and the public. Three-quarters of the class stated that they shared their Wikipedia contribution with others outside of class including friends, family and, in one case, “as many people as I could.”

A final challenge with teaching controversial topics is helping students understand stereotypes. Although most students felt strongly about inequality – whether it was a public or private problem, for example – Wikipedia’s policies prohibited students from simply expressing their opinions. And Wikipedia’s policies (and notably not the instructor’s) forced students to take into account the views and perspectives of others. This was one of the most difficult challenges for students. Wikipedia’s automatic editors, classroom peers and external editors were quick to edit students who simply wrote their opinions, used stereotypes or made unsubstantiated claims. Responding to editors’ concerns forced students to confront their assumptions and biases which, in turn, led to healthy class discussions.

When I was first considered incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into my course I expected a learning curve. What I did not anticipate is how the assignment made discussions and learning about inequality easier. The assignment reduced anxieties often caused by class peer relations. It also provided a vehicle to challenge traditional student-instructor power relations that can often get in the way of learning. And finally, Wikipedia’s rigid structure and format often forced students to confront the assumptions that create our perceptions of what is normal and what is the other.

About the Author: Mark K. Cassell is Professor of Political Science at Kent State University where he teaches courses in public policy and administration, comparative public policy, and urban politics. His article “When the World Helps Teach Your Class: Using Wikipedia to Teach Controversial Issues” will appear in a forthcoming issue of PS: Political Science & Politics.

[1] A stub is a short article in Wikipedia in need of expansion. Stubs are often good places to start and there are lists of stubs in Wikipedia by topic.