Teaching with Wikipedia 

What was the purpose of the activity?

In the summer of 2018, academic librarians Caroline Ball and Jon White delivered a workshop at the University’s Learning and Teaching Conference on the ways Wikipedia can be used as a learning and teaching tool. We were particularly interested in using it in relation to the University’s Information Literacy Framework. Suggestions included:

  • assessing references used in Wikipedia articles;
  • researching topics or information using open access sources in comparison to researching them using library subscription sources;
  • comparing Wikipedia articles with traditional encyclopaedia articles, textbooks or journal articles;
  • using Creative Commons or Wikimedia Commons to find images;
  • discussing issues of neutrality and systemic bias in Wikipedia articles.

In the wake of this workshop, Caroline was approached by Dr Matthew Cheeseman, Programme Leader of BA Writing and Publishing, who was interested in bringing Wikipedia into a new module. The aim of the module was to get students developing written material for a client, having them write in line with the client’s style manual, according to their content requirements. Wikipedia seemed ideal to act as this client, providing an unlimited range of topics to write about. The articles written would also be live, rather than just practice assignment pieces, available to the world’s largest readership.

The module developed in line with the client. It now allowed the students to develop a more nuanced understanding of what Wikipedia is and how it works, whilst also doing their part to improve both it and their own digital capabilities and writing skills.

Approach Used

The module was structured around the use of Wikimedia’s own educational dashboard to record editing activity. This platform is somewhat akin to an academic VLE, with a module timeline, the ability to upload documents and links, and embed Wikipedia’s own training modules. It also allowed module tutors to monitor students’ editing activity, giving them the ability to see what articles the students were working on, the scope of the changes made, the option to compare before-and-after versions of the articles, and also see the impact of the edits made by page view statistics.

The teaching was carried out by Caroline Ball. Her weekly classes combined a mixture of lecture delivery with practical activities, covering elements such as evaluation of articles and sources, copyright and plagiarism, referencing, research, online use of images, online etiquette and dealing with harassment, systemic bias, peer review and online collaboration—all elements as relevant to students’ on-going digital literacy capabilities as to future publishing careers.

This would take up the first half of the class, with the second half being devoted to editing Wikipedia, applying the principles and skills focused on in the first half. For example, in the week devoted to sources and citations, the students were tasked with using the Citation Hunt tool to find statements within Wikipedia articles that lacked verification and do research to find an appropriate source of information to verify the statement. If they could find no such supporting material, they were encouraged to edit the article to remove the statement. In the week devoted to image/media literacy, the class focused not just on sourcing legal material online but also how to take good quality photographs of their own for use online and how to licence these for others to use via Creative Commons.


By the end of the module the students had made a total of 514 edits to over 90 articles, adding over 23,200 words to Wikipedia. Collectively, their work had been viewed a staggering 7.4 million times.

Article topics ranged from young adult fiction to female motorcyclistsfolk archetypes to philosophy, corporate entities to dogsmythological creatures to toast.

Feedback was consistently positive, with students especially singling the hands-on activity based approach as a highlight:

I liked gaining a little more confidence

I enjoyed how hands-on this lecture was

I liked how hands on we are with Wikipedia

I liked that we got to do a lot of work, which was good

I liked how practical it was

There was nothing I didn’t like

At the beginning of the first class, students were asked to complete a digital literacy self-assessment form, rating their confidence levels on a scale of 1 (very unconfident) to 4 (very confident). A 4-star scale was used to avoid the usual ‘hedging bets’ middle-ground choice of 3! This self-assessment demonstrated that the students’ confidence levels averaged between somewhat unconfident and confident.

In the final class, the students were asked to complete the same form again. This time students’ overall confidence averaged between confident and very confident, with improvements in confidence demonstrated in every single question asked. The largest increases were in the areas of peer review, ability to identify bias, writing content for public consumption, and, unsurprisingly, general Wikipedia skills!

Lessons learned

Particularly in the early classes, when the students are still getting to grips with the basics of editing Wikipedia, it is worth having at least one other person on hand to help out.

The format of the teaching room is important. Lecture rooms or IT labs would be difficult, as some of the activities require a flexible approach to room layout. A flexible teaching space is ideal (such as B226 or the Library teaching room).

Access to laptops was important—not all students will have their own devices, and teaching in an IT lab has its own challenges, so portable devices are ideal.

Students need to feel that Wikipedia has an importance in and of itself. We found that we needed to emphasise its profile as, to begin with, some students were dismissive of it as a client.

Key Points for Others

This approach would work well as a digital skills module in any programme. The learning outcomes of each week’s class would be applicable to any cohort of students, being transferable digital skills applicable to many future careers or contexts. The approach could be tailored to particular disciplines by focusing on particular topics within Wikipedia—for example Biology students focusing on articles relating to Biological Sciences, History students focusing on topics such as local history.

One potential drawback might be the size of the cohort involved. This approach would work best with small groups—because of the interactive, hands-on nature of much of the delivery, a large group would be difficult to train and support without more staff on hand.

If you wish to submit a proposal for a future Ideas Factory post please submit using this form.


Caroline Ball (Academic Librarian – Centre for Student Life)

Dr Matthew Cheeseman (Associate Professor of Creative Writing)


Nicola Sparkes (Learning Technologist-Curriculum Devt – Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching)