• 04.12.12

Wikipedia Goes To College

Wikipedia wants academics to write content, and students to fact-check articles for academic credit. Wikimedia’s ambitious university project also has another goal: To crack previously resistant foreign-language markets.

Wikipedia Goes To College

Wikipedia is the current king of the encyclopedia world. Encyclopaedia Britannica, remember, announced they were ceasing print publication several weeks ago. Now Wikipedia–and their parent Wikimedia Foundation–want to conquer the final frontier: Academia. If Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and his acolytes have their way, professors will edit Wikipedia pages in their fields, add content in foreign languages, and allow their students to cite Wikipedia articles in papers.


The Wikipedia Education Program is an ambitious worldwide project aimed at “expand[ing] Wikipedia’s use as a teaching tool worldwide.” It’s also an easy way for Wikipedia to boost foreign-language content in critical markets like Brazil and the Arabic world, and for the open encyclopedia to transform itself into a bona fide research engine for academia. The move also comes, as The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal noticed, at the same time Google quietly sidelined Google Scholar, apparently to put focus on higher revenue-generating services. For the not-for-profit Wikipedia, storming the barricades of academia and being accepted there is a very desirable goal.

Wikimedia’s LiAnna Davis tells Fast Company that the Wikipedia Education Program is “one of a number of projects to increase the quality of content,” with a Wikipedia Ambassadors Program recruiting both in-person and online “ambassadors” to serve as evangelists for Wikipedia inside the academy. Ambassadors are experienced Wikipedia editors who are expected to train professors and academics on Wikipedia article construction, format, tagging, and community etiquette.

Funding for the Wikipedia Education Program comes out of Wikimedia’s annual operating budget. The university project began in the 2010-11 academic year as the Public Policy Initiative, whose budget of $1.2 million was provided by the Stanton Foundation. The Public Policy Initiative was a scaled-down version of the project aimed at recruiting professors in the social sciences to assign their students to improve articles on relevant subjects in Wikipedia. The current budget for the Wikipedia Education Program is unknown.

Ambassadors are experienced Wikipedia editors who are expected to train professors and academics on Wikipedia article construction, format, tagging, and community etiquette.

A major part of the Wikipedia Education Program consists of having students edit Wikipedia pages related to their field of study. According to Davis, professors have found that students are “energized” by contributing to a website that they use on a daily basis. Professors who participate in the program are given sample lesson plans and syllabi to use in the classroom–and Ambassadors are expected to assist professors in building their own. An example syllabus made publicly available by the Wikimedia Foundation builds a 12-week college course around Wikipedia, with lessons covering everything from building articles to citing sources and avoiding plagiarism. Handouts provided by Wikimedia cover topics such as basic Wikicode and uploading images.

Academics are also being encouraged to serve as informal curators for their field of expertise. Wikimedia is encouraging professors to edit pages in their fields of study, and to create new articles for niche subjects. Wales and company have also aggressively sought out scholarly organizations for professional collaboration with Wikipedia. The 23,000-member Association for Psychological Science (APS) has launched a Wikipedia Initiative where “your students will ensure psychological science entries are accurate and complete.” Another large organization, the 14,000-member American Sociological Association (ASA), has their own Wikipedia Initiative dedicated to ensuring that sociology-related articles are “accurate, up-to-date, complete, and written in a style appropriate for the general public” and to correcting problems found in pre-existing articles.

The growing ubiquity of Wikipedia has played an important part in the site’s legitimization. While Wikipedia has been massively popular for years, articles on the site (which, of course, are edited by the general public) have been dogged by allegations of errors and bias. This reporter easily remembers being emphatically told, back in the early ’00s, by college professors never to use Wikipedia in citations. However, it is rare to find an academic who is not at least an occasionally Wikipedia user. More common are the cases of academics such as University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Edward Erikson, who said that “Wikipedia is always present in the classroom–whether it’s invited to attend or not.”


But while the Wikipedia Education Program gives Wikipedia the considerable prestige of academy-approved status, the real secret sauce is the international market. In non-English speaking countries, Wikipedia has wildly varying rates of use. While there are just over 3,900,000 English-language articles on Wikipedia, there are only ~1,235,000 French articles and 185,000 Bahasa Indonesian articles. Certain languages are disproportionately strong, with 123,000 Basque articles (approximately 685,000 speakers), 126,000 Kazakh articles (approximately 13 million speakers), and 149,000 Lithuanian articles for 3.2 million speakers.

Wikipedia has a more robust Portuguese presence; there are approximately 720,000 articles online for a target audience of 252 million in Brazil, Portugal, and elsewhere. However, Brazil’s staggering economic growth and internet penetration rates make it an attractive expansion site for Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not as ubiquitous in Brazil as it is in the Anglophone world, and print encyclopedias still dominate much of the market there.

Similar projects have been launched at other universities worldwide. To name a few, there is a formal Wikipedia presence at universities in the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Mexico, and Russia. Several programs at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education allow students to translate Wikipedia articles from English to Spanish and edit existing articles for academic credit.

Perhaps more than anything else, the Wikipedia Education Program seems to signify Wikimedia’s growing ambitious and need for respectability. Constant allegations of incorrect information, bias, and other sloppy residues of crowdsourcing have dogged the encyclopedia for a long time. It is also no surprise that, whether their professors like it or not, many university students (hell, maybe even most) turn to Wikipedia to research their academic work. For Wikimedia, making allies in academia and working their product into the academy makes simple sense. If this project also helps them crack crucial foreign-language markets where they face competition, so be it.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Wikimedia user Alin]