Zachary McDowell, University of Illinois at Chicago – Wikipedia in the Classroom

Should you use Wikipedia in the classroom?

Zachary McDowell, assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discusses this common question.

Zachary J. McDowell is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Communication. His work focuses on access and advocacy in digitally mediated spaces, particularly in areas of cultural and information production. Zach has been teaching with Wikipedia in his classroom for seven years, currently working with his students to improve Wikipedia pages on nonprofit organizations in the Chicago area.

Wikipedia in the Classroom


According to a recent study from Stanford University, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

Students read Wikipedia every day, but are often told, “don’t use it.” Abstinence-only Wikipedia education doesn’t work.

Teaching with Wikipedia is an incredible teaching tool and resource to learn critical information literacy skills, to motivate students, to learn writing for a general audience, and to learn about the class topic.

Although those of us teaching with Wikipedia have had plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the Wikipedia assignment, we needed empirical evidence to support our hypotheses.

I recently teamed up with the Wiki Education Foundation to study Student Learning Outcomes using Wikipedia assignments. Results confirmed what we had been seeing for years: students were proud of their work, spent more time, were more motivated, and were more satisfied with their class assignment than with traditional coursework. Both students and instructors valued Wikipedia assignments more for learning digital literacy, critical thinking, learning to write for the general public, and learning about reliability of online sources.

Not only did students perceive the assignment as useful for developing these needed skills, they also demonstrated mastery in these skills. Students engaged in deep learning about systemic biases, construction of information, and value of information. As one student participant in a focus group said “It raises an awareness of what is good information, what is bad information … you have much more of a questioning mentality and you’re a lot more conscious of the validity of the information that you read.”

If nothing else, we need more students thinking like this.

(You can read more about the study, as well as download the white paper along with the data set which have all been released under open licenses)

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