Using Wikipedia in a seminar on historiography

Since several years René Leboutte, professor at the history department of the University of Luxembourg, organises on a regular basis workshops and larger conferences on the subject of Digital Humanities. Today he invited me to one of this workshop asking me to reflect on the use of Wikipedia in one of my classes on historiography given to students in their third year.

If the use of Wikipedia seems quite wide-spread in the United States (revising posts, creating new ones or even inventing a person), European historians seem to be more sceptical: there are some documented experiences for German-speaking countries, I do not know of any in the French-speaking countries.

Instead of an exam, I decided last year that the students had to write an entry for Wikipedia on an historian from the 20th century. The 15 students of that year all knew Wikipedia but had never produced any content on it.1 At the beginning, students were quite astonished that a teacher would explicitly ask them to use Wikipedia, still often presented as “evil” by academics. All of them succeeded in posting a biography of an historian on Wikipedia without my help: four used the French Wikipedia, one the German one and 10 the Luxembourgish one. In the Luxembourgish Wikipedia all entries were new except one, in the French and German Wikipedia, the students significantly increased the size of the notice – they had to write 12 000 characters, twice the average number of characters used for the biographies of the historians they worked on. The content produced by the students was largely accepted by the three Wikipedia communities: only one was completely erased. Especially on the Luxemburgish Wikipedia the notices were heavily adapted to the specific Wikipedia style. Members of this last community also contacted me, offering the possibility to create a specific portal if I want to retry the experience. These positive elements only partially outweigh the negative ones. None of the students used the possibilities offered by the specificities of the Internet. 13 of the 15 students just copy-past the text they had written on a word processor into Wikipedia: no links to other content on Wikipedia or on the Web, no attention paid to specific Wikipedia features… And none of the students, at least under the identity created for the course, continued to be an active part inside Wikipedia. And that had been for me at least, a very important aim of my class.

The picture is a screenshot from the best post, a notice on Saul Friedländer published on the German Wikipedia (the version before the student intervened, the version proposed by the student, and the version as it is today).

Some useful bibliography/links:

  • Cavender, Amy. “Ah, Wikipedia!” The Chronicle of Higher Education. ProfHacker, January 29, 2010. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/ah-wikipedia/22941.
  • Forte, A., and A. Bruckman. “From Wikipedia to the classroom: exploring online publication and learning.” In Proceedings of the 7th international conference on Learning sciences, 182–188, 2006.
  • Kelly, Mils. “Consider Yourself Warned.” edwired, November 5, 2011. http://edwired.org/2011/11/05/consider-yourself-warned/.
  • Parker, K.R., and J.T. Chao. “Wiki as a teaching tool.” Learning 3, no. 1 (2007): 57–72.
  1. This is typical for Wikipedia users: only 5% of their users also produce content; Pscheida, Daniela. Das Wikipedia-Universum : wie das Internet unsere Wissenskultur verändert. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010, p. 357. []

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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