Wiki Literacy

Engaging a generation that was raised on video games and social media requires information literacy classes with a little pizzazz. In Successful Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Research (Scarecrow, 2013), Marta Deyrup and Beth Bloom, both on the library faculty at Seton Hall University (SHU), NJ, have gathered stakeholders in our profession—librarians, professors, other academics—to look at the state of librarian/student interaction and suggest new ideas for moving forward. The book came about, Deyrup explains, because of the editors’ long-standing relationship with Carol Kuhlthau, professor emerita at Rutgers, who has written eloquently about the information search process (ISP).

Two of the authors, Williamjames Hoffer of SHU and ­Davida Scharf of New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), are working against the academic disdain for Wikipedia. Hoffer, an associate professor of history, asserts that it “is far better for instructors to recognize Wikipedia’s power (and warn of its perils) than to behave like ostriches.” Since students will use Wikipedia anyway, he says, Hoffer encourages professors to have their charges check the validity of the sources used on the site, treating it as a tertiary source. The goal, the professor says, is to make students “use Wikipedia as a starting point rather than an end point.”

Scharf, a librarian, takes things a step further. In 2007, she and professor James Lipuma piloted a program to make third-year undergraduate technical writing students Wikipedia editors (this class was chosen because its demographics matched that of the typical Wikipedia editor: a male student in his twenties from the developed world). The team’s assignments and approach have spread to other institutions, and now, according to Scharf, there is a “booming little corner of academia using Wikipedia as a teaching tool.”

“Can We Make Peace with Wikipedia?” (, an article by Christopher Harris in LJ’s sister publication School Library Journal, started Scharf thinking differently about the free online encyclopedia. “The Oxford English Dictionary was the original collaborative reference work,” she quotes Harris, an LJ 2008 Mover & Shaker, as saying, “and librarians worship it.” At the same time, Scharf notes in the book’s literature review that “assignments that spark genuine interest generally provide stronger incentives than grades or punishments.” Also, while Wikipedia has been a strong topic of discussion among librarians, the literature doesn’t document many positive uses of it.

Wikipedia 101

The course was designed to teach students about audience, authority, objectivity, information ethics, and proper citation. After Lipuma agreed to try the curriculum with online and face-to-face sections of a class (some other professors were very reluctant) and posted the assignment, a small measure of success was immediate: students began to try the task independently, even educating themselves about how Wikipedia is edited.

Scharf explains to LJ that students were asked to start by editing definitions—a skill that’s important in technical writing—on Wikipedia. Some students found themselves merely correcting typos, whereas others came across definitions that were more problematic, for example, using the word they were defining.

The goal of the assignment proper was to write or improve an article on a “topic about which [the students] felt they already had knowledge or expertise.” While participants found this intriguing—one student was pleased to add career details to the entry on famous engineer Lillian Gilbreth, as the existing article only mentioned her personal life—the teaching team noticed right away that more guidance was necessary. Students who chose a company or product as their topic (commercial pages are restricted) and those who wrote about celebrities using only other websites as their sources were ­often disappointed as “the invisible hand of a Wikipedian with experience and authority often deleted such articles.”

After the team had gained some experience, says Scharf, the members realized that “articles that were already well developed proved to be overwhelming in terms of the time needed to make a significant contribution, so we directed students to articles already identified as needing improvement.” Another approach was what Scharf calls “reverse engineering”: students would find a reliable information source and then locate an article on Wikipedia that could benefit from it.

Surprise, surprise

The amount of work involved was eye-opening for students, Scharf tells LJ. “They initially thought it would be a piece of cake, but if you’re not bibliographically savvy and want to do a good job of editing Wikipedia, it takes a lot of time.” Students were unused to having to cite their work so much, but, Scharf says, “some got hooked, and all at least ended up with more respect for verified information.”

Some features of the site were unexpected all around. For instance, the students were asked to add “NJIT” at the end of their usernames on the site, so that their work could be located and graded. Scharf explains that they learned, however, that users are not supposed to identify themselves as part of a group.

Wikipedia is also working to address the problem of “sock-puppet” editors—users who take advantage of Wikipedia’s ground rules to plant false information. One way in which contentious material is validated is for users to have a discussion about it on the article’s chat page and come to an agreement. These sock-puppet editors will set up multiple accounts, have an argument with themselves that comes to the conclusion they want to push, and then post an article that looks like it was arrived at by consensus.

Many unforeseen issues caused the assignment to morph over time, to the extent that the work now consists mainly of preliminaries: choosing a topic, sizing it, stating plans at the “talk” page for the article in question, etc. The project was rewarding, too, though, and remarkably true to professional challenges. Students had to find and cite reliable sources, tasks that are routine in information literacy classes, but some of the lessons were especially brought home by the use of Wikipedia and the necessity to work with quality information in articles.

Students found the assignment more engaging than traditional information literacy vehicles: “because it was on the web, which is real to them,” says Scharf, “they learned the difference between fact and opinion and that each fact should be verifiable, preferably in more than one source.” Helpful for students’ future careers, “Writing on a topic for an encyclopedia bears resemblance to academic writing in several ways. It requires documentation, accuracy, and currency but without the argument.” From course evaluations the teaching team learned that the students would be more diligent in their use of Wikipedia as a source in the future.

Scharf benefited from the work as well, as the student patrons began to see her and other librarians in a new light. “It was powerful,” she says, “that students saw us more as coaches. It helped librarians’ credibility that I had no input in the grade and that the professor would present me as the expert.”

The aftermath

A few years after the project had taken off, Scharf got a call from Rod Dunican of Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind Wikipedia (she initially thought it was a hoax). Dunican had seen a video ( of Scharf talking about the project at the 2009 Merlot conference in San José, CA. As a result, the librarian was flown to California along with other academics who were doing innovative projects with Wikipedia. There the group sat in a room while, says Scharf, “they picked our brains “ on ways in which Wikipedia could be used as a valid tool in classrooms.

One result was that Lipuma and Scharf were featured in a “Case Studies Brochure” ( ) produced by Wikimedia that also shows what other teachers were doing with the site. (See also Wikimedia’s pages on its education program [] and “How To Use Wikipedia as a Teaching Tool” []).

The students-as-editors idea began to spread, moving first to other classes at NJIT and then outside the organization. The New York Times recently profiled a project ( at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), in which medical students edit Wikipedia articles on diseases. There are several ideas behind the project, the first of its kind at a medical school. The professors who developed it hope the students will improve medical information at the site and that the work will help these future doctors to impart medical information better to laypeople. Another goal is to increase access to disease information in the developing world; the Times article explains that UCSF’s agenda “fits neatly with efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation to make deals with cell phone carriers to provide Wikipedia content free of data charges, especially in the developing world where cell phones are often the only connection to the Internet.”

On the proliferation of her work, Scharf marvels that “a whole industry has blossomed…it turns out a lot of it was built on our ideas.”

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Arvind Verma says:

    NIce article, interesting piece on the ever evolving world of information.

  2. Paul Boultbee says:

    I am a Canadian academic librarian at Red Deer College (Alberta) and have collaborated with one of the College’s History instructors on just such a project. We and our students experienced much of what is outlined in this article. Although our students enthusiastically (for the most part) embraced this project, we did find that they (1st year, world history from 1789) were most intimidated by the technology and the Wikipedia formatting/referencing protocols. They were not has cyber-savvy as we thought, and were afraid of “breaking Wikipedia”.