Class Edits Wikipedia: How Not to Win New Editors

This semester I find myself enjoying teaching an undergraduate class (who would have known). The class I am teaching is called “Retrieving and Evaluating Electronic Information” (I’d probably scratch “electronic” from the class name sometime soon). I had mentioned the class before as I was planning it. It’s about teaching undergrads about information retrieval, e.g. Web search and how it works, using other sources of information, and how to evaluate information found on the Web.

For the last topic, Wikipedia of course is an important special case. By now, they have heard countless instructors tell them to be careful when using Wikipedia, but I am not sure they have a good idea why. That’s why I performed a live Wikipedia edit in class, right in front of their astonished eyes. In addition, I had all of them perform a Wikipedia edit, and monitor their edit for a week to see if it is altered or removed:

Become a Wikipedia editor and contribute by creating a new topic or modifying an existing article. Your edit does not need to be extensive, but it must be substantive and non-trivial.

(the full text of the assignment can be found here; with credit to Nina Wacholder for co-developing it).

Here are a few things that I learned from the reports submitted, where they described the edits they performed and their thoughts about the process.

  • Most of the students had taken the assignment very seriously. They took time to select a topic they cared about, and add some substantial, serious edit to that entry. Some of them had meant to start a new Wikipedia topic.
  • The assignment clearly made all of the students understand both the danger and the power of Wikipedia. They saw, at once, how easy it is for anyone to put information on Wikipedia pages; and how the policies and practices of Wikipedia at least partially protect against vandalism, unreliable data, or unverified information.
  • The WIKI formatting was a complicating factor, but all the students were persistent enough to figure it out. Especially important was the reference format, which they were encourage to use. Most have handled the formatting issues by adapting examples from other pages. Others have scaled back their edits, choosing to go with plain text. Some have noted the difficulty of inserting images and tables.
  • Some students will definitely edit Wikipedia again, but for some, that was it.

Indeed, as part of the assignment, some students commented on whether or not they are likely to contribute to Wikipedia again. There was an even split, more or less. Two common themes emerge for a student predicting they will make no more edits. First, some simply felt they are not specifically experts on anything and therefore are not likely to contribute any substantial knowledge (despite the fact that the exercise they have just been through shows exactly the opposite).

Second, and more disturbingly, the students that had their work deleted for various reasons indicated the least likelihood to contribute again. I imagine the Students’ edits were deleted for various reasons, including lack of citations. However, in almost no case of deletions had the students gotten a good idea of why their contribution was removed — at best there was a short note in the edit history of the page. Unfortunately, students found that lack of feedback and arbitrary nature of deletion not only confounding, but also somewhat inappropriate: why was their content removed without comment?

I can definitely see how such a first experience could dishearten anyone. A better approach might be for experienced editors to notice the fact that edits were made by first-timers (or beginners), and send them a personal note explaining what they did wrong and how they can improve their contribution. Yes, time consuming – but a personalized explanation might do wonders in having the new editors come back for more.

The reverse experience was also lacking. The students whose edits stayed on the page were not clear whether their edits were reviewed by anyone or just left there because of neglect. Of course, they had no way to learn about the impact of their edit (e.g., how many people looked at the article since they added their information). Both these factors can serve as positive reinforcements for new editors – I am hypothesizing here…

Now go edit the Wikipedia page for Ayman!

3 thoughts on “Class Edits Wikipedia: How Not to Win New Editors

  1. ChaTo

    Interesting assignment. I think the main takeaway message for students is to understand the process of peer production. It would be nice to ask them also to look at the “Talk:” pages before editing.

    * * *

    Some of your students were bitten by Wikipedia editors. This is against a clear Wikipedia guideline: “Please do not bite newcomers” explained in

    Wikipedia in general welcome newcomers. There are even a series of standard messages to greet them, even when they make mistakes:

    All the best,


  2. naaman Post author

    Hon – that’s nice integration – and a good start – but the statistics are not personalized, not up to date, and not presented prominently enough. I, for one, knew about but never noticed the link on the History page.

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