Thursday, April 2, 2009

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

Look for the original in the 2009 AACE-Ed Media Conference Proceedings!

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

by Alexa Garvoille and Dr. Ginny Buckner

Abstract: In response to current anxieties over students’ ability to critically evaluate internet-based sources, we propose a secondary curriculum that uses Wikipedia as a platform to pose questions about information verifiability, ethical use of technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. We argue that, while already prevalent in college curricula, the examination of Wikipedia page creation in secondary classrooms provides a developmentally relevant approach to guiding adolescents into higher levels of thinking. The proposed project, appropriate for any discipline, but here concerned with high school English, develops traditional research and editing skills and culminates in a contribution to public knowledge through writing and editing underdeveloped Wikipedia pages (stubs). Methods for project implementation, including suggestions for scaffolding and differentiating learner tasks, are included.


High-tech classrooms, innovative technology, and specialized software help teachers introduce students to new educational paradigms. Computing technology, second nature to students under the age of twenty-five, often aligns itself with educational prowess. As young adults prepare to face the challenges of the twenty-first century job market, educators, in turn, must devote themselves to advancing twenty-first century skills. However, amidst the development of such skills in close proximity to all things technological, lies the problem of critically evaluating that technology from a distance. Since so many young adults claim intimate familiarity with technology, educators might pass over outright discussions of how technology has changed the way students think. Despite the incredible onward and upward trend in educational technology, students can gain critical distance examining in-depth the most basic technology. In addition, students in public schools, for instance, do not always have access to the most recent technological resources. However, using just the internet students can advance developmentally and gain critical thinking skills by the careful consideration of and contribution to one of the most familiar sites on the internet: Wikipedia.

It’s been suggested that in these hard economic times, an expensive liberal arts education could just as easily be replaced with the absolutely free “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia. The ability to access information about anything by merely checking a BlackBerry or going to the computer lab has transformed the way we think and, more importantly, the way the next generation thinks. Information has become addictive. Most high school students look on Wikipedia for research information. Numerous college students have even been caught citing Wikipedia as a source in papers, which earned failing grades. While there is consensus that Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia for that matter) should not be cited for academic work, exactly how Wikipedia fits into our schools has yet to be determined. Though numerous post-secondary institutions have successfully incorporated Wikipedia page expansion into course requirements, some secondary schools have banned the site. The new mantra, “Wikipedia does not count!” has led schools to block its access on campus. Librarians and principals argue that students cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and therefore Wikipedia shouldn’t be available to tempt students.

Wikipedia, however, offers a consistent alternative (Giles 2005) to the vast, ambivalent sea of sites that is the internet. These days, even Google searches help the curious by sending them to Wikipedia first. Since students will certainly continue to use Wikipedia outside of school, the classroom is actually the ideal place to address questions of source reliability (Davidson 2007, Groom 2007). Secondary schools should take up the project that has already begun in universities all over the world. By examining the workings of Wikipedia in the context of the classroom, students at a younger age can understand why Wikipedia isn’t actually a source at all (thus preparing them for college), and how they can help make it a better resource by becoming budding Wikipedians themselves––that is, editors of Wikipedia. Instead of researching on Wikipedia, students learn critical skills by researching for Wikipedia. In addition to appealing to students, this high-interest project finds support in education standards: the International Reading Association in conjunction with the National Council for the Teachers of English (1996) require that, for one, “students use technological and informational resources…to gather and synthesizeinformation and to create and communicate knowledge.”

In this paper, we will present a theoretical framework for using Wikipedia in the classroom, not as a source for research, but as an opportunity to conduct research and engage in critical thought. We will specifically provide a focus for how Wikipedia relates to adolescent development. Then, we will suggest how, for example, secondary English teachers can integrate a Wikipedia-editing project into a typical high school curriculum, as well as recommend other possible academic trajectories for the project.

The Context: 21st Century Adolescent Learners

Most adolescents rightly see Wikipedia as a viable source––much more so than many adults. However, students may not understand the trepidation of parents and teachers to use the site as an academic source. Developmentally, many high school students and sometimes even college students think in concrete-operational terms, according to Piaget, meaning they understand logical processes in terms of cause-and-effect but often cannot yet grasp abstract gray-area concepts. The concept of source reliability is difficult for these students to understand (Eastin 2008, Piaget 1959). Each developmental stage builds on the last, and in order to progress to the next stage, the learner must experience a complication of their previous understanding. Exposing students to the process of editing Wikipedia pages for themselves would create a moment that Piaget terms cognitive dissonance. This state occurs when a prior assumption (the truth of the Wikipedia page, for example) clashes with newly acquired knowledge (that the page is easily edited). The new concept does not fit into the previous system of thought, thus leading to the accommodation of a new idea, the creation of a new set of paradigms in the brain. Instead of leaving students to continue thinking concretely about the internet by “just saying no” (Olanoff 2007) to Wikipedia, educators can make the ubiquity of the Wiki not only a teachable moment, but, more importantly, part of the developmental process.

By introducing students to the technical intricacies creating Wikipedia pages, we address technology and content standards (NCTE/IRA 1996) in addition to allowing students to personally possess their education by actively constructing it. Students would explore firsthand the unspoken contradiction between the casual acceptance and academic restriction of the internet. In such a way, students pursue what Paulo Freire (1970) calls a “problem-posing education.” Instead of censoring information or feeding students sources, as from a cart of librarian-selected books, a problem-posing classroom embraces the constraints placed on the students in order to lead them to a higher level of consciousness about their place in the world and, today, their place on the net. Freire suggests the goal of education is to perceive the world not as “a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Likewise, instead of seeing knowledge (represented by Wikipedia) as static, students learn the process behind creating knowledge, thus empowering them to contribute to the transformation of knowledge, both within themselves and in the greater world of the internet.

Incorporating and even welcoming this sometimes inaccurate, vandalism-prone medium into the classroom, educators gain a platform for exploring problems of source credibility, ethical standards in technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. By taking advantage of the novelty of the medium, we offer students the opportunity to speak as experts based on intimate prior knowledge and engage in higher order thinking by evaluating a media resource. By making Wikipedia the topic of discussion, the focus of a project-based, student-centered classroom, rather than the outlawed but still-consulted secret, students can identify the shortcomings of Wikipedia themselves and actively engage in improving it.

Origins of the Project: A Graduate Student’s Perspective

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try Wikipedia-edits in a high school classroom. But I spent the year in public high schools as a candidate in Duke University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program, a one-year, intensive teacher preparation program. I managed student teaching in Durham high schools while taking graduate English classes at Duke. Since the central element of our MAT program is the cultivation of reflective practices, I always observed my graduate professors and classmates metacognitively, taking notes on what I could bring back with me to the high school. I always tried to connect how seminar discussions with fellow graduate students might help me reach high schoolers, which was not always apparent. However, my experience in a course on the early American novel did more than bridge the gap.

Instead of fulfilling expectations about the class based on its title (“The Early American Novel”), the professor, Cathy Davidson, an interdisciplinary scholar and advocate for Wikipedia use, shattered and exceeded the students’ expectations. In the first class meeting candidates learned that the course would be devoted to improving public knowledge on the web and promoting the digital humanities (as opposed to the already-successful digital sciences). Like every successful educator, the professor set higher order thinking (evaluation not memorization) as the goal for the class. Bloom’s Taxonomy of thought, from which the term higher order thinking derives, guides many educators’ planning and applies to adolescents as well as adults.

Bloom puts forward an idea similar to Piaget’s notion of development, which categorizes thought into six levels that, like stair steps, lead the thinker from simple, lower order concerns like fact recall to more complex, higher order concerns like source evaluation. The learner progresses, in order, from knowledge, comprehension, and application to analysis, synthesis, and, finally, evaluation (Bloom 1956). This graduate literature course quickly escalated to evaluation. We questioned the very basis of our discipline, for instance, wondering why novels are categorized by nationality. We learned the content, but the main goal was always to address the big questions. By evaluating the novels, the canon, and the discipline, our discussions consistently kept the higher order concerns at hand while engaging students personally by requiring that each take responsibility for sharing knowledge gained in class with the online community.

To successfully defend the use of Wikipedia in any class, it is important to note here that this class focused on novels popular mainly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but not considered canonical or common knowledge. The Wikipedia pages for these texts reflected their marginal status, giving the class much to work with. Of the six novels on the syllabus, at the beginning of the semester, four of their Wikipedia pages were classified as stubs, one was short enough to be a stub, and one, though more thorough, cited no sources. Again, the unsung status of these subjects was key to ensuring the success of the Wikipedia project. These were the kinds of novels that have no SparkNotes, no eNotes, no cheat sheets. Having come from the public school system, entrenched in canonical classics, the idea of working with little-known literature struck a chord. While classics will generally maintain hold of education in terms of content, I could use less seminal works to teach skills––of source evaluation, writing drafts, conducting research––all in the name of Web 2.0. Imagine the impact high school students could have on the knowledge base of Wikipedia if, instead of using it as a source, they learned the value of finding print and non-print sources in order to contribute to the site; if, instead of turning in a book summary to the teacher and then throwing it away when returned, students were required to post the checked draft to Wikipedia, where it would be saved forever in the history of an article? Our small class of nine graduate students alone has since removed the stub status of all articles, added a significant number of sources, and, overall, contributed more than twenty kilobytes of information to early American novels on Wikipedia. High school students could improve the resource and feel a sense of empowerment and social responsibility, just as I did after adding my first edit.

As a teacher and learner, the experience of evaluating contemporary media and engaging in Web 2.0 materials during a course helped me see the value of maintaining a focus on relevance and immediacy in the classroom. Because of my experience in the course, I now spend hours looking through Wikipedia stubs and page histories, just correcting grammar and editing style. Even if students do not have internet access at home, this kind of project is so much at the core of our reading habits that it can follow the students beyond the classroom. For high schoolers, publishing on Wikipedia would provide a readership beyond the teacher and the classmate (NCTE/IRA 1996), subsequently offering an authentic writing experience for the student. In addition, research shows that adolescent brains favor novelty (Spear 2000), so bringing ever-new technology into the school keeps students engaged and looking forward to class. For teachers, principals, and families, this means students will be more likely to attend and less likely to stay home or linger outside school. In addition to using novel technology (which still seems young at eight years old), improving Wikipedia stubs necessarily involves interacting with new information. In order to supplement the SparkNotes Classics of our reading lists, students will interact with little-known books or subjects to increase the knowledge base of Wikipedia and to gain higher-order thinking skills.

Wikipedia Applied: A Classroom Project

We’ve explained how studying Wikipedia supports adolescent growth and higher order thinking in students from high school to graduate school. Now, based on my combined experience of using this tool in a graduate-level class and interacting with high school students on a daily basis, we will propose one method of implementing the project in a high school English classroom, explaining the educational or developmental impact of each different step. Wikipedia offers students an expansive opportunity for intellectual growth and innovation. Most curricula require research, summary, and writing skills. In this project students will gain all three, with the added benefit of increasing their technology and media knowledge. After assigning a project to ninth-graders in a public high school to create a Facebook page on a character from literature, I know that students with both extremes of ability level consider Web 2.0 a worthy and entertaining project. In addition, both levels of students find innovative ways of using technology that the teacher usually does not think of.

At the point in the school year in which the project would be introduced, my students will have already conducted research using a database. In addition, students will have practiced summarizing text and identifying main ideas. The Writing Wikipedia project reinforces research and summary skills in addition to incorporating the evaluation of information and opinions. The educational goals for the project enable students to 1) understand the need to verify information through multiple sources by experiencing the fluidity of knowledge on Wikipedia, 2) improve editing skills regarding clarity, style, and mechanics, 3) conduct research, cite, and synthesize information, and 4) understand that all new media requires critical evaluation.

At each step of this project, which culminates in expanding a Wikipedia stub, younger students need extensive support to help them utilize prior knowledge and skills in order to apply them to the next step of the process. This support, or scaffolding (Vygotsky 1978), ensures that the learners can reach a goal appropriate to their current skill level. If experience is an indicator, students can never have too much support; intermediate steps ensure gradual thought development and skill mastery. Vygotsky suggests that both scaffolding and social interaction increase the effectiveness of education (Vygotsky 1998); therefore, students should be divided into small groups to establish social development goals alongside intellectual ones.

The eight-step project outline that follows gives one approach to incorporating Wikipedia into a secondary classroom. Each step aligns with a level of thought from Bloom’s taxonomy or an instructional procedure found to be successful in previous university-level executions of the project.

1. Set the stage: The teacher conducts a Socratic-style seminar on the ethical and practical pros and cons of Web 2.0, including Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube. The class assembles a list of pros and cons to reference throughout the project. This initial discussion engages students in the project, allows them to speak as experts, and contextualizes editing Wikipedia as a timely and relevant problem. This discussion engages the highest order of thinking (evaluation, level six) from the start, thus issuing an initial buy-in from the students.

2. Learn the rules of Wikipedia: Students create a document that communicates, in their own words, the core values of Wikipedia. Instead of using direct instruction (lecture) to communicate the rules, the teacher allows students to construct this information by reading Wikipedia’s “About” section and its Manual of Style. This activity anticipates how students will interact with the page itself to answer questions throughout the project. Students should work together, ideally each at a computer, to instill at an early stage a sense of collegiality rather than competition. This step involves display of knowledge and comprehension (levels one and two).

3. Reinforce Wikipedia style: Since encyclopedia writing is very different than essay writing, the teacher needs to reinforce the importance of code-switching, that is, using different styles for different purposes. To assert style and content requirements, the teacher might lead students in evaluating numerous sentences copied from Wikipedia or other sources that may show bias or unverifiable information. In small groups, students could sort these sentences into two categories and explain their rationale for each grouping of “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Once students begin to compare results, this activity results in productive debate. Students use analysis, Bloom’s fourth level of thinking, to group the sentences.

4. Introduce stubs and their weaknesses: The class explores the “List of Stub Categories” on Wikipedia to find small, incomplete articles on literature. At this point, students should explore the “History” of the article, including how to compare two versions of it. The teacher may choose to quickly demonstrate an edit on one of these pages to create a moment of cognitive dissonance, showing students the power they have to fix errors (or create them). One way to introduce students to the amount of work that needs to be done on Wikipedia would be to allow teams to print and edit a few pages for mechanics. This could also lead to an initial, less intimidating edit of a live page, thereby preparing students for their full content edits. This step engages Bloom’s third level of thinking, application, since learners apply previous editing knowledge to a new medium.

5. Stub selection: In order to best differentiate for a multi-level class the various requirements of page edits, the teacher should create heterogeneous (mixed-ability) groups of three to four members. As a team, students decide each member’s strength and assign each an appropriate role: for example, source identification, research, image addition, or style consistency. The teacher may choose to specify a stub category (for instance “Poetry stubs”) in order to avoid the indecision or vague goals characteristic of students faced with too much choice (Groom 2007). Student groups should then decide on a stub to expand. This step involves interpersonal evaluation (level six).

6. Research: This is the most important step and should be allotted enough time to ensure that it is truly effective. After surveying their entry, students should compile a list of information they will need to expand it. For instance, students might list “plot summary,” “list of characters,” “history of writing,” as categories to add. Since students are constructing their own knowledge in this project, the teacher should not suggest categories, but instead direct students to full Wikipedia entries on similar topics to see their format. The teacher leads students in research, which they will conduct collaboratively. Students will then synthesize the information (Bloom’s level five) into one document, for instance on GoogleDocs. At this point, the advanced student can take a leading role to ensure clarity and style consistency, two main critiques of Wikipedia. One student should also lead the others in ensuring the consistent use of in-line citations. Before publication, students peer-edit and the teacher reviews the articles.

7. Publish: To learn how to edit pages, students may look to the Wikipedia tutorial: The teacher may then refer students to the “Sandbox” feature on the site, which allows experimentation.

8. Follow-up: Sign up for the “Watch List” on all student-edited articles to see how other Wikipedians improve them. This may also allow students the opportunity to revert page vandalism.

At the end of publishing on Wikipedia, students can feel both a sense of entitlement and accomplishment for adding to public knowledge in a responsible and credible way. Student will have also gained critical research skills from page building. If not, they will soon find the page deleted by other Wikipedians. No grade can impact students like the acceptance or rejection of their work by the English-speaking, internet-using world.

Beyond the Classroom

Here, we’ve suggested a project-based method of integrating Wikipedia use in a secondary English classroom, an extension of the current university-level work, but the applicability of the project is wide-reaching.

In addition to teaching English content strands, this project offers faculty an opportunity for an interdisciplinary collaboration. Schools that pair English and History classes or use the Freshman Academy model to keep one small group of students circulating within a team of teachers could use Wikipedia for the basis of joint planning. Research skills are central to educational goals in many departments, as well as being central to Wikipedia’s standards.

As noted, the creation of Wikipedia pages enriches post-secondary and doctoral work by encouraging an active online community of scholars. Research universities’ humanities departments can use Wikipedia as an opportunity to break out of the ivory tower or the obscure journal to increase public interest, readership of their work on the web, and, eventually, readership in their subject area.

New teachers looking for positions in a competitive market of schools focused on twenty-first century skills benefit from understanding and embracing cutting-edge technology in the classroom or lecture hall––not as a cheap trick to lure the attention of hyperlinked brains, but as a platform for profound discussion on a topic for which boundaries have not yet been established. A discussion of Wikipedia may lead to one on social networking and its etiquette, for instance––a topic far from having such boundaries. Students are much more likely to take an active role in discussion when they know the teacher isn’t looking for a certain answer… Because right now there is no sure answer.

In a broader view, since Wikipedia pages and their history can be accessed from anywhere, a course on Wikipedia improvement could be offered by a variety of institutions. As a higher-order thinking project, Writing Wikipedia Pages could be a distance learning class gifted students in rural or underprivileged districts. Likewise, summer enrichment programs could develop such a project into an intensive workshop devoted to debating the social and ethical underpinnings of public knowledge before focusing on significantly expanding stubs into scholarly articles.

With Wikipedia edits in hand, our adolescents will have gained the power to impact readers all over the world, the resources to answer their own questions, and the critical analysis skills to evaluate sources. The next generation of information managers will know that Wikipedia is not a source, but rather a collection of sources and a seed for a powerful shift in the educational paradigm.


Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Davidson, C. (2007). We can’t ignore the influence of digital technologies. Chronicle of higher education, 53 (29), 20.

Eastin, M. (2008). Towards a cognitive developmental approach to youth perceptions of credibility. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning: Digital media, youth, and credibility, 29-47.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature, 438, 900–901.

Groom, M. (2007). Using Wikipedia to reenvision the term paper. Information futures: Aligning our missions, 2007, EDUCAUSE, Seattle, WA.

National Council for the Teachers of English and International Reading Association (1996). Standards for the English language arts. United States: NCTE/IRA. Also available

Olanoff, L. (2007). School district unites in banning Wikipedia. Seattle Times. 11/21/2007.

Piaget, J. (1959). Language and thought of the child. (M. Grabain, Trans.) New York: Humanities Press.

Spear, L. P. (2000). The adolescent brain and age-related behavioral manifestations. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 24(4), 417-463.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1998). Early childhood. In R.W. Rieber (Ed.), Collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Child psychology, 187-205. New York: Plenum.


Broughton, J. (2008). Wikipedia: The missing manual. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. Free copies for educator use.

Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). Educator and graduate student perspectives on the digital humanities, including information on Cathy Davidson’s courses at Duke University.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. Boston: MIT Press. Available to download free at

Wikipedia School and University Projects. Listing of Wikipedia-editing projects currently being conducted.


Dave Phalen said...

Hey Alexa, took a break from building my Secured Transactions outline and read the better part of your project idea. My thoughts. Well I recall hearing more than one that Wikipedia generally only has one more error per page than other encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica, etc... I think this is an important aspect to consider, if my memory is correct that is. If Wikipedia is as solid as they say it is for gathering information, it seems that children in the classroom will have little to filter through, and what may be incorrect might be so minute that even a discerning mind might miss it.

Of course, this all depends on the age group you are working with (which I assume is high school). I think of what John Milton said in "Paradise Lost" when consider the idea of compare and contrast projects (with regard to reliability of sources). He said "without evil, there could be no good". That's how I would view source filtering for youths. Without obviously wrong sources to compare against pure sources, students might only see the pure pages of wikipedia and will eventually wander into the confusing muck of the world wide quagmire none the wiser.

It's a thought anyway. Of course I recognize that, if you are looking of subjects on rare and random minutia, you are much much more likely to run across errors in Wikipedia, which might play nicely into your hand.

As another thought, I would consider integrating your plan of exploring Wikipedia's webscapes with a parallel plan to compare internet sources in general and their vast differences with the the well-panned pages of Wiki. With that sort of approach you would be able to prime students for filtering information by using the internet first, then Wiki, and you would also further student respect for the value of finding and using gems like Wikipedia. Just a friends 1 AM insights. Peace out. -Dave

Alexa Garvoille said...

Thank you Mr. Phalen for reading. You gave me some insights into possible misreadings of the project that significantly helped me revise the draft. Above, you'll see the new draft that focuses specifically on expanding Wikipedia stubs rather than validating already-thorough Wikipedia page sources. Therefore, students will be creating their own accurate information, adding to Wikipedia, supporting Wikipedia, instead of trying to incriminate it for errors. Check out the stub page:

Thank you, thank you.

Dave Phalen said...

Ahhh...I see now. Very, Very cool. I love the idea you just explained. Involving a classroom with the expansion of knowledge is an absolutely brilliant idea. I seems that many children must get rather frustrated by being bystanders all throughout their early schooling periods...never being able to contribute and instead being forced to consume information wholesale. I think that your idea as I now understand it will do a great deal in make children feel more connected with the knowledge they so often encounter and will greatly inspire them by letting them see that their keystrokes will not be repaid with only a letter grade, but that their words will be seen and will contribute to the world's knowledge as a whole. Bravo.

Writing a Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.