How To: Use Wikipedia in the Classroom Responsibly

Adam Heckler is a twenty-something Cincinnati, Ohio local working in the education technology sector. Most of his time is spent at VARtek Services where he writes for the blog, manages social media, and advises K12 s

Despite the fact that it’s currently the year 2013, and that our collective EdTech excitement is growing every single day, there’s still one aspect of modern technology and the Internet that is too often ignored in our classrooms. You know what I’m talking about: the “W” word. Wikipedia.

The problem is that Wikipedia in the classroom has gotten a bad reputation in the K-12 world, undeservedly so I think. I would suggest that Wikipedia can be used for a multitude of educational purposes at a wide variety of grade levels. Too many teachers are still afraid to use it in class, so I’m here to right that wrong and show our educators how they can responsibly integrate Wikipedia into their lessons.


Wikipedia in the Classroom

1. Learn the Rules

Even though it has a reputation among teachers for inaccuracy and lawlessness, Wikipedia does have a few guidelines that all editors should abide by. They are described at length on this page, but in short they are:

  • Free content: All content submitted to Wikipedia must be original, since it will become part of the commons. Copying and pasting from other sources is a no-no.
  • Reliable sources: Third-party sources are required for all claims. They need to have a sturdy reputation for fact-checking and accuracy (e.g., academic journals).
  • NPOV: Short for neutral point of view, this means that all articles should be written without bias. Argumentative stances and outright advocacy are not allowed.
  • Good faith: Respect your fellow editors, and assume they’re acting in good faith. That is, avoid accusing others of deliberate malice just because you disagree.
  • Notability: When deciding whether or not to write about a certain topic, Wikipedia generally considers an article justified if the topic has been covered by a third-party.


Assignments you give to your students should always follow these guidelines. That said, it’s important to remember that they are just that: guidelines. Wikipedia always encourages editors to “be bold” and not be afraid to make mistakes.


2. Create an Assignment

Once your students have the necessary guidelines down, everybody should pick a way in which they want to improve Wikipedia. Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to do this.

If you have a few students who are good with two or more languages, you could have them help translate articles. This page shows a ton of articles that are awaiting translation from a language besides English. Some pages, listed here, have already been translated by another user, but still require some polishing up.


If your students like to create media in one form or another, they can take photos or even record short videos for certain articles. Just like for translation, Wikipedia has pages listing which articles need photos and which ones need videos.

For students that are good with spelling and grammar, there’s always copyediting needed. Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, there’s never any shortage of typos and oddly worded sentences. True to form, Wikipedia has a list of articles needing copyediting that resides here. Also useful are two separate guides to the process of copyediting itself.


3. Choose an Article

Of course, the hardest part of this assignment might be choosing an article to edit, at least for indecisive folks like me. In general, editing and improving upon existing articles is a safer route than having students create all new articles, since Wikipedians can have some pretty strict views about what should and should not be an article.

Here are some pointers:

  • Start with “stub” articles. Stubs are articles that are too short to be fully encyclopedic. You can find a list of them at this link. There are thousands of stubs, so your students should have no problem finding something to improve.
  • Progress to start-class articles. These articles are little more than stubs, but could also use a significant amount of work.
  • Try finding subjects that students know a lot about but that don’t have lengthy articles on Wikipedia yet. This helps them create new pages at length.


What to avoid:

  • Editing articles that are rated as “Featured” or another higher rating class. These kinds of pages are more difficult to improve effectively for inexperienced editors.
  • Editing articles on controversial subjects. Just use common sense!
  • Creating articles on topics not often covered by third-party literature.


4. Edit, Edit, and Edit

Now that your students have picked out an article and are ready to go, turn them loose and see what they can do! That said, have them keep in mind that Wikipedia is very different from any other writing assignment they may be used to.

For example, articles are based in fact, not argument, so they will be written very differently from the common persuasive essay. Wikipedia also discourages extensive quoting. Paraphrasing is preferred to long block quotes, although nobody should begrudge a snippet or two from the original text where it’s warranted.



5. Evaluate Student Work

Finally, it’s time to check in on your students and see how they did. There are several assessment methods to choose from:

  • Multiple peer reviews and a self-review
  • Class discussion of “lessons learned”
  • “Before and after” quality comparison
  • Reflective essay by each student

Ultimately though, it’s your classroom, so it’s up to you to decide how to grade your students.

Be sure to check out Wikipedia’s own resources for teachers as well. They have an awesome 12-week syllabus showing you exactly how you can integrate Wikipedia into your classroom. They also have training designed especially for educators.


Have you introduced your students to editing and contributing to Wikipedia? How do you go about responsibly using Wikipedia in the classroom? Let us know in the comments below!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kalexanderson. Post images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Anomie, Ventdorage, Kevin Tostado, and the Library of Congress.