Authentic assessments: using Wikipedia in the University classroom

Ever since I met Dr Nimi Hoffmann in the corridors or Essex House and talked to her about her use of Wikipedia in her teaching I have been inspired by the idea. Nimi, Dr Cecile Chavalier, Matthew Taylor, Dr Richard Nevell of Wikimedia UK and I have been meeting regularly to make Wikipedia type assessments a reality here at Sussex. Nimi had begun to use Wikipedia in her masters-level teaching at Rhodes University in South Africa, and last semester aimed to strengthen and deepen this teaching at the undergraduate level in the International Education and Development module which she convenes. 

Part of my excitement about the project is its scope in creating authentic assessments. These are forms of assessment which require students to apply knowledge and skills learnt in their studies to contexts outside of the education domain. Student assessment tasks, such as essays and examinations, and the skills they require, are unlikely to be needed again outside of education and the students’ demonstration of their learning is contained to a restricted academic audience. At the University of Sussex many academic Schools and Departments are looking at how they can add more authentic assessments to their modules.

Wikipedia assessments can be thought of as authentic assessments. They require students to share fully referenced knowledge to a global audience. They can get students to think very differently about their assessment challenge and although they can be daunting, through the right support they are often inspiring and promote deeper thinking and criticality. Furthermore, contributing to Wikipedia increases their citizenship and agency and these match the aspirations we have for our graduates as outlined in our 2025 strategic framework.

Consequently I organised a time to discuss with Nimi what she did to change her teaching and assessments and why she felt it was important. The following is an extract of my talk with Nimi:

What is your role and how did you change your module?

I study knowledge commons, and over this last semester, I have been piloting the use of Wikipedia – which is a kind of commons – in teaching and learning at Sussex.

I have been particularly interested in facilitating collaborative enquiry among students. This emphasis has grown out of my scholarship, which examines knowledge as a commons – epistemic resources that are generated and governed by a community. But commoning – the act of creating and maintaining commons – involves the cultivation of specific epistemic virtues that are orientated towards communal work – such as humility, playfulness and courage. I was curious to know: 

  • How might these virtues be cultivated within the university setting? 
  • And what kind of intellectual work can students produce in commons?

As a way of exploring this interest, I piloted an undergraduate module in International Education in which I set students the task of writing a Wikipedia article on an education topic from the global South that is absent or under-covered in Wikipedia. Examples of this include Quilombo schools set up by runaway slaves in Brazil, the anticolonial independent school movement in Kenya, and the educational writings of Rabindranath Tagore.

What were the learning and teaching issues that prompted this innovation?

Many topics are missing from Wikipedia as a result of the raced, gendered and geopolitical inequalities of the internet. It is for this reason that writing Wikipedia articles on these topics is a valuable form of service learning, in which students have the opportunity to approach their learning in terms of its social ends, alongside its personal benefits. 

Wiki-teaching is now a well-developed and well-documented method of teaching. There are rich examples of wiki-teaching in universities and schools from nearly one-hundred countries, ranging from Ghana to Scotland. Wiki-teaching allows students to get involved in creating content on Wikipedia, so that a successful course project has potentially millions of readers, and the feedback they receive from their peers and their lecturers is directed towards strengthening the project, rather than simply evaluating their abilities. As Wikimedia puts it, wiki-teaching is ‘The end of throwaway assignments and the beginning of real-world impact for student editors’.

How did you ensure that the innovation was accessible to all?

In preparation for using Wikipedia in 2021, a group of us who were interested in Wikipedia-teaching at Sussex started meeting regularly in 2020. Various people have participated in this group, including those from the Arts and Humanities, Global Studies, Law, and Technology Enhanced Learning, as well as my own school – Education and Social Work. We have put together resources, discussed ideas for how to integrate Wikipedia in our teaching, and drawn on the resources from Wikimedia UK and the University of Edinburgh, which has pioneered the use of wiki-teaching in the UK. I have been very fortunate and been able to go back to the Sussex group as well as our Wikimedia focal point for further advice and support throughout the process. 

The module has focused on scaffolding the task of writing a Wikipedia article as carefully as possible so as to ensure all students are able to produce a piece of work that they feel comfortable to publish if they choose to do so. The article was broken up into smaller tasks – choosing a topic, choosing key references, developing an annotated bibliography, and then writing a draft. I then randomly allocated their anonymised drafts to two other peers, who provided anonymous detailed written feedback and comments using the marking rubric. Following this, we had a peer assessment workshop composed of three parts:

  1. a group discussion on what they learnt from assessing others
  2. their own plan on how they intend to improve their draft on the basis of the feedback they received
  3. my own general feedback on their drafts. 

After the workshop, students then revised and submitted their final drafts for a final assessment. Although this final assessment contributes to their year mark, I have worked to provide detailed comments so that they can also use this assessment to improve their article before publishing it.

Writing for Wikipedia also involves some technical skills. At the start of the module, I was very fortunate to have Dr Richard Nevell, a staff-member of Wikimedia UK, run an excellent workshop for my students regarding the structure of the Wikipedia environment, the nature of its governance model, and fundamental principles of Wiki writing, such as how to identify quality references, what constitutes neutral language, and the dynamics of collaborative editing. Now that the module has ended, students each have a well-researched draft Wikipedia article, which they can then choose to publish. To help them in this, Wikimedia UK are going to run a second workshop with them on how to publish the article.

What impact did this have on the student experience?

Wiki-teaching is an excellent way of helping students to understand the collaborative nature of knowledge production. This is increasingly important in the 21st century, which relies far less on individual ‘genius’ and much more on collective deliberation, communal play and peer-based error correction. This is a vital characteristic of good citizenship, I think. It’s central, for example, to understanding that science is a collective noun and a verb rather than a single noun – this has been the difference between recognising the proper role of trial and error in the scientific community during Covid versus demanding immediate certitude from individual authorities and denouncing communal disagreement and trial and error as evidence of conspiracy.

Wiki-teaching also helps students to engage in debates about appropriate referencing and audience-specific registers. For example, academic essays have one kind of register, Wikipedia articles have another, and policy briefs yet another. Being able to move between these registers is a useful skill which I think will stand them in good stead, no matter what professional path they end up carving for themselves. 

How will the outcomes influence your future practice?

I am now moving towards introducing multilingualism in the classroom environment. Wikipedia is excellent for this, I think, because students can write assignments in whatever language is available on Wikipedia, and then translate this using machine translation (for example through Google translate). Besides being a lot of fun, this is also a great way of getting students in international education to understand that linguistic pluralism is an epistemic resource, rather than a problem to be solved.

I also want to think about group projects to generate featured articles for Wikipedia – these are articles that are considered to be of an excellent standard by the community and have undergone extensive review and vetting within the community. 

Finally, I am also documenting the process and sharing this with the wiki teaching group at Sussex, so that we can consider how to roll this out more broadly. There are a lot of exciting possibilities to contribute in different ways, for example, by visualising datasets from a data science perspective, creating beautiful digital illustrations from an arts perspective, or participating in human and machine translation within the Wikipedia environment. The Library at Sussex has also been coordinating a fantastic series of Women in Red editathons aimed at addressing the small number of biographies on women and queer people in Wikipedia, and it would be brilliant to bring all our resources together into a communal effort.

How can wikipedia support our teaching

It was fascinating and exciting to talk to Nimi about her successes and challenges teaching with Wikipedia last term. In the Technology Enhanced Learning team, with Nimi’s case study, Richard Nevell’s experience and the support of other academics, we are developing a deeper understanding of how Wikipedia can be used in teaching, learning and assessment. Nimi and Richard will be giving a workshop (with support from us) about her experience later in the year. We do hope you can join us and let us know if you would like to try to use Wikipedia as an authentic assessment tool in your own teaching and we will be delighted to support you in any way we can. For further help with innovative assessment design, please contact TEL at TEL@sussex.ac.uk 

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