Connect: How Wikipedia became the bedrock of one US librarian’s information literacy courses
March 14, 2023
By Laurie Bridges, Linda Willems
In the first of this two-part series about the platform, Laurie Bridges explains why she incorporated it in her teaching and how students have responded.
When Laurie Bridges’ son came home from third grade excited about a school project, she was curious. She explains: “He has dyslexia, and this was the first time he was really enthusiastic about his schoolwork.”
When she probed further, she discovered that each child in his class had been asked to pick a frog, research it, and present their findings to their classmates. Laurie says: “I asked him how he was doing his research. He just rolled his eyes at me and said, ‘Wikipedia, duh!’”
This got Laurie thinking. She used Wikipedia in her personal life. It played a role in her professional life too – alongside her liaison responsibilities, Laurie is an Instruction and Outreach Librarian / Professor at Oregon State University (OSU). And when teaching undergraduate classes, she often referenced the platform. She says: “Like most professors, I told my students, you can start your research with Wikipedia, but don’t use it beyond that.”
Her main question was why would a third-grade teacher recommend it to her pupils as a key research source? So, she asked her librarian colleagues at OSU for their thoughts. Laurie recalls: “One said, well, it makes sense because most encyclopedias easily digested by a third grader, wouldn’t have so many types of frogs to choose from.” Her colleague also pointed to the hyperlinked words on each Wikipedia page that enable readers to dig deeper into their topic. “For my son’s class, this meant that they could learn more about their frog, its habitat, and the surrounding community.”
Another factor that intrigued Laurie was that her son clearly found Wikipedia easy to use. “I spend a lot of my time teaching students to use databases that leave them saying ‘what?’”, she explains. “So, I started thinking, okay, if some schoolteachers, who knows how many, are teaching about Wikipedia, then I should learn more about it too, because their students might come to OSU.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Laurie immersed herself in the world of Wikipedia and Wikimedia – the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia and a range of other open knowledge platforms. What she discovered led to her pitching an idea to OSU’s Honors College for a two-credit course about Wikipedia. It was accepted and she taught her first class in the spring of 2019. Today, she delivers the course with co-teacher and fellow OSU librarian, Diana Park, and they have recently published a paper (opens in new tab/window)sharing their learnings.
Understanding the terminology
Wikipedia(opens in new tab/window) is a multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteers. Since its creation in 2001, it has become the world’s largest reference website, attracting over 1 billion visitors each month. It currently has 60 million+ articles in more than 300 languages and 121,681 people actively contributed to articles in the past month alone.
Wikipedia – engendering a new level of student engagement
According to Laurie, the excitement and interest these sessions inspire is unlike anything she’s previously experienced in her teaching career. “Students are incredibly enthusiastic about someone acknowledging that it's okay to use Wikipedia, and then explaining in depth what it is and how it operates.”
Laurie’s students learn all about the open knowledge platform; for example, the importance of critically evaluating Wikipedia pages and the best ways to do that, along with advice on how to use the platform’s content in their work – we explore this information literacy aspect of Wikipedia in part two of this series.
Importantly, her students also actively contribute to Wikipedia as part of their coursework, by making substantial additions to an existing page or creating a new one. The students are free to select a topic they are passionate about, leading to some fascinating choices. Laurie reveals: “In 2021, a student created a new page on lemon bars(opens in new tab/window) – they were previously part of a page on American dessert bars, but she felt they were important enough to deserve their own article.”
Another student, who told Laurie he regularly sees people using Wikipedia to help them select dishes in Vietnamese restaurants, chose to revise an existing page about the Vietnamese dish Cơm tấm.(opens in new tab/window)
According to Laurie, the students’ affinity with their chosen topics makes them want to do a great job – that, and the knowledge that they are potentially writing for a global audience. “It’s more exciting than just writing for your teacher,” she points out. In addition, the students’ work is reviewed by one or more of Wikipedia’s legions of voluntary editors, known as Wikipedians. Laurie explains: “When a new editor posts something on Wikipedia, an algorithm alerts other Wikipedians to go look at it and make sure it’s okay. This makes students extra careful about the words and the sources that they use. For example, the student who wrote about the lemon bars was worried that, as a feminized topic, her page might receive more scrutiny because it was about baking, so she made sure that she did an excellent job.”
But Laurie had no idea how engaging her students found the sessions until she reached the end of the first course. “I asked them to present their projects to their classmates. The students really embraced the assignment, and it was so touching to watch them talk about what they had learned. As one student pointed out, it wasn’t just ‘busy work’ – it felt like there was a point to it.”
In part two(opens in new tab/window) of this article series, Laurie explains how Wikipedia can support key library goals and shares practical tips for librarians new to the platform.
Wikipedia’s role in information literacy is one of Laurie’s research interests. View her publications and presentations on the topic(opens in new tab/window) on her website.