In 2010, I made a one-line entry in Wikipedia noting that Emily Carr University of Art & Design was the first university in North America to make a course on sustainability a requirement for all design majors. Eight days later both US and Canadian media were phoning about the course, looking for someone to interview.
Teachers complain about students using Wikipedia for research, but reporters increasingly depend on it because it saves time. I was surprised such a small entry stirred up such a large response. It pointed to a way teachers could help students matter in the real world. If even a small fraction of teachers assigned editing Wikipedia as a requirement of some courses, students could affect public discourse on a broad range of issues.
Every year, I had tried to create an engaging project for my course, Sociology for Design. I knew they responded better to real-world assignments, compared to hoops-for-marks, usually discarded at the end of the course. Environmental projects always got a good response but one focused on climate change seemed ideal. Students see it as a real threat casting a dark pall on their futures. Still, climate change is a challenging topic; students feel helpless given the scale and complexity of the issue. So I asked them to do something that would make a difference; I asked them to add content to Wikipedia focused on what could be done to address the issue.
I began by asking the 18 students in the class to identify the latest published material on climate change, then to compare this to current Wikipedia entries. Students discovered that Wikipedia entries were often inadequate: some were too technical, many were outdated, others omitted important information. For example the entry on deforestation – a leading contributor to global warming – mentioned climate change, but didn’t include attempts to reduce deforestation or address global warming through tree planting. On discovering this, two students took on the task of putting up a new page on deforestation and climate change, detailing the influence of one on the other, as well as attempts by countries like China to address climate change through large-scale tree planting.
Another example: Wikipedia had a page on the environmental impact of meat production, but it overlooked the enormous amounts of methane produced by beef and dairy cattle, which his students were able to address. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency beef and dairy cattle are responsible for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making them the third-largest contributor of global greenhouse gases. None of this was on Wikipedia.
Often students were able to make difficult material more understandable. Most students made small edits where they couldn’t understand something, but some made much larger edits. One student read and summarized an important but long-winded book on global environmental governance that few people were likely to read. Others created explanatory diagrams for entries that were almost entirely text.
The project encountered some minor problems. Wikipedia content has to be coded properly, an initial headache, but one most students quickly overcame. Students also had to respect Wikipedia’s basic requirements for neutral language and credible citations. Content that ignores these protocols is usually reverted to its original by numerous citizen-editors. Students also needed a username and password so they could log in, track their edits, and participate in discussions of edits.
A sure sign of student enthusiasm was their early arrival for class. Students recognized this little project might really matter beyond the classroom. The resulting uploads on the project due date were so numerous (upwards of 600 edits in one day) that Wikipedia assumed it was under attack and blocked Emily Carr University’s IP address for three days.
I ran the project again in 2015, this time focusing on numerous new attempts to introduce carbon taxes, the impact of the beef and dairy industry, and the economic case for action laid out in the 2014 New Climate Economy Report. This time students made additions to Wikipedia in other languages; a Brazilian student added material in Portuguese on the importance of the Amazon as a huge carbon sink. A Chinese student put a hyperlinked version of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report onto Baidu, which provides the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia.
Teachers can address a wide range of issues by assigning projects that ask students to fill the gaps on Wikipedia. Just about everyone relies on Wikipedia as a source of knowledge, but relatively few people contribute. If teachers took on the task of ensuring a complete, accurate, and up-to-date Wikipedia, it would make it a truly great resource. They could help ensure people everywhere have access to essential knowledge, public policy is based on knowledge rather that nonsense or nothing at all, and we have a chance of addressing the most pressing problems of our time.
Don’t be put off by the minor headaches associated with editing Wikipedia. Coding is a bit of a nuisance but it can be borrowed from existing pages, and students quickly figure it out. New content is sometimes deleted by page watchers. To avoid this follow the short Basic Rules for Editing Wikipedia.
The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.