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The use of collaborative open-access publishing via Wikipedia in university education to embed digital citizenship skills

La publication collaborative (libre) via Wikipedia à l'université en tant qu’outil pédagogique de citoyenneté numérique
Crystal Fulton
p. 09-22


Le développement de la littératie numérique par les étudiants est un élément clé de la formation universitaire, destiné à conduire à la citoyenneté numérique. Cet article considère la participation des étudiants à la création collaborative sur Wikipédia comme un moyen de faciliter l’acquisition par les étudiants des compétences de recherche numériques essentielles à leur développement en tant que citoyens numériques actifs.

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The author gratefully acknowledges the support for this project of her students, UCD’s Decade of Centenaries Funding, and Dr. Rebecca O’Neill from Wikipedia. In addition, the author thanks her research assistants, Samm Coade and Linda Kerr, as well as Holly Fulton-Chabot and Stéphane Chabot for their assistance with translation.


1Student development of digital literacies is a key component of university education, intended to lead to digital citizenship. Wikipedia, with its emphasis on collaborative collection of information, offers a means of providing many of the skills needed to increase digital literacy. This paper explores student participation in collaborative authoring in Wikipedia as a means for facilitating not only student acquisition of core digital competencies, but also their development as active digital citizens.


Digital literacies and digital citizenship

2Increasingly, there is some importance attached to digital literacy in people’s lives, including education (Cartelli and Giovannella, 2014). Students are expected to master multiple facets of digital citizenship during their university education. JISC (2015) defines digital literacies “as the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society,” including six particular interlinked areas of focus : 1) information, data, and media literacies ; 2) digital creation, problem solving, and innovation ; 3) digital learning and development ; 4) digital communication, collaboration, and participation ; 5) ICT participation ; and 6) overall encompassing digital identity and well-being. The European Union has similarly identified essential areas of digital competence for digital citizenship : 1) information and data literacy ; 2) communication and collaboration ; 3) digital content creation ; 4) safety ; 5) problem solving (Carreto Gomez, Vuorikari, & Punie, 2017). Most recently, CILIP has offered a new definition of information literacy that is inclusive of print, digital, academic, and media literacies :

Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to engage fully with society (CILIP, 2018 : 3).

3Facilitating student acquisition of digital competencies and digital literacies poses a significant challenge, requiring skills development across the categories identified, for instance, by JISC (2015) and Carreto Gomez, Vuorikari and Punie (2017).

4The goal of digital literacy is particularly relevant in the Irish context. An OECD report (2013) ranked Ireland as seventeenth out of twenty-four countries surveyed for adult literacy skills. Issues around digital literacy are recognised as educational priorities, with various guidance for enabling learning in the digital environment in higher education, e.g., the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (2014, 2015, & 2018). The goals identified nationally are in keeping with international perspectives. For instance, Educause’s five-year global projections for higher education support combining new learning environments with active, experiential student learning to produce graduates “who redefine and improve the workforce they enter” (Becker et al., 2018 : 6). The report specifically calls for digital fluency that goes beyond simply learning how a tool works to “leveraging technology in creative ways that allow them to more intuitively adapt from one context to another” (Becker et al., 2018 : 6).

Digital research skills

5The concept of digital research is most often concentrated on the ability to locate, evaluate, and utilise relevant information digitally. For example, the All Aboard (2015) project emphasises development of information literacy skills for finding, evaluating, and managing information. In this context, the digital researcher is one who possesses particular capabilities around working with information. However, digital research may also encompass a wide range of activities that extend beyond finding, evaluating, and using information to research processes involving primary data sets or secondary information sources.

6Traditional research is usually considered to include a range of research strategies and methods, dealing with primary data, as well as research literature. Digital research may be viewed as a digitised form of traditional research, including primary research tasks, such as gathering research data online and using online tools to analyse and write about data. The research tasks may span all steps in the research process, such as data collection through online interviews or surveys accessed via a webpage, digital capture and storage of data, digital tools for data analyses, and so on.

7For the purposes of this project, digital research skills were considered as essential information literacy training to facilitate students in their development to accept the challenges of a digital world. While digital research skills in this context did not include traditional research functions of gathering and analysing data, the concept was inclusive of all aspects of working with information, expanding beyond finding, evaluating, and using information to concepts of ethical information use and collaborative information communication.

Wikipedia as a learning tool

8Wikipedia ranks as the largest online and offline encyclopedia (Hogg, 2012) and as one of the most accessed websites in the world (Thompson and Hanley, 2018). The encyclopedia has long been associated with education, initiating the Wikipedia Education Programme in 2010 (Wikimedia Outreach, 2018). Wikipedia continues to support teaching through its Education Programme, providing instructions and tools for learning about adding content to the encyclopedia (Wikipedia, 2018). With additional research instruction in class, students have a rich and empowering opportunity to enhance their digital abilities and social engagement.

9Importantly, educators and researchers are exploring the possibilities of Wikipedia. Carleton et al. (2017) reported that working in a collaborative through Wikipedia enhanced productivity among the interdisciplinary group of scholars, noting :

The flexibility inherent in Wikipedia’s collaborative model and community values has allowed our own collaboration to effectively leverage experience and skills—including course and assignment design, interpersonal communication, public speaking, research, digital citizenship, community outreach, and project management—to produce, as a group, in ways that would be much more difficult as individuals (Carleton et al., 2017 : 14).

10Researchers are also collectively discussing the outcomes of their engagement with Wikipedia in teaching and learning. In 2018, scholars from around the world gathered in Maynooth, Ireland to share their work with each other at a one-day conference, Academia & Wikipedia : Critical Perspectives in Education and Research.

Wikipedia in the classroom

11Wikipedia is a favourite information source among university students for course-related information seeking and in combination with other sources (Head and Eisenberg, 2010 ; Knight and Pryke, 2012). Lim (2009) noted that students use Wikipedia as tool for finding quick facts and background information. Clark (2011) reported that students do not depend on Wikipedia for their studied, instead using the online encyclopedia as a starting point for research. Allahwala, Nadkarni and Sebaratnam (2013) observed that medical students preferred Wikipedia over traditional medical resources for ease of use. Baran and Ata (2014) found that students whose Wikipedia literacy level was high often perceived their information literacy levels to be high. However, it should be noted that students may also be discerning consumers of Wikipedia content ; for example, Barnhisel and Rapchak (2014) observed that students participating in assessment involving editing Wikipedia approached the task critically, questioning Wikipedia’s reliability but learning through their assessment that the online encyclopedia was reliable.

12Unlike its popularity with students, the online encyclopedia is not always accepted among educators, with university instructors frequently banning the use of Wikipedia in their courses (Chandler and Gregory, 2010 ; Clark, 2011 ; Todorinova, 2015) and academics infrequently contributing to the online encyclopedia (Corbyn, 2011). Problems around plagiarism, concerns about reduced use of scholarly material for assessment for content such as found in Wikipedia, and debate about the accuracy of Wikipedia content have created a negative impression of Wikipedia (Di Lauro and Johinke, 2017 ; Hogg, 2012 ; Wannamacher, 2009). Even where researchers, such as Javanmardi and Lopes (2010), assessed Wikipedia as having high-quality content, there remains a stigma around the encyclopedia. Hogg (2012) has further noted Wikipedia’s identification and correction of errors :

While not 100 percent accurate all of the time, it [Wikipedia] rivals textbooks with its accuracy and surpasses textbooks when it comes to correcting the mistakes (Hogg, 2012 : 448).

13Others, such as Thompson and Hanley (2018), have pointed to the similarities found by researchers in error rates between Wikipedia and Britannica as evidence of content quality. They further point to Wikipedia as an influencer in the literature of fields like science, acting like a review that points to other literature. Soules (2015) has observed that faculty attitudes toward Wikipedia are changing. Aibar et al. (2015) recently found that faculty do not necessarily dislike Wikipedia ; rather, they value and use Wikipedia. However, these faculty do not use Wikipedia in their teaching. The authors concluded there was a conflict between traditional knowledge development and the open collaborative model followed by Wikipedia, with academics’ perceptions influenced by their colleagues and subject areas (Aibar et al., 2015). Meseguer-Artola et al. (2016) and Lladós-Masllorens et al. (2017) similarly noted that colleagues’ opinions about the usefulness of Wikipedia and the quality of content in Wikipedia affected academics’ adoption of Wikipedia in teaching (Meseguer-Artola et al., 2016). Konieczny has further hypothesised that establishment practice, in which there is “little merit or peer-recognition that comes along with integrating Wikipedia into one’s teaching and scholarship,” inhibits adoption of the tool (Konieczny, 2014 : 83).

14In recent years, instructors have begun to use Wikipedia in educational contexts and have reported on the utility of the online encyclopedia for learning. The most common form of assessment involves editing content in Wikipedia (Wannemacher, 2009). For example, Barnhisel and Rapchak (2014) reported that an assignment to edit and create Wikipedia entries, followed by reflecting on their learning, helped students understand how Wikipedia might be reliable and useful. Dawe and Robinson (2017) reported that students involved in editing Wikipedia content gained confidence in their information literacy skills and exceeded expectations in article length and numbers of reference used. Bilansky (2016) observed that editing and writing for Wikipedia taught students about writing standards. Similarly, Vetter (2015) advocated Wikipedia in helping students to develop writing skills.

15Other noted benefits of student participation in developing Wikipedia content include increased motivation resulting from online publication and additional use of their texts, increased understanding of how to use secondary sources appropriately, and increased understanding of negotiation culture through Wikipedia’s principle of neutrality in articles (Wannabacher, 2009). Carleton et al. (2017) found Wikipedia facilitated collaboration and critical thinking, and this supports an increasingly participatory, interactive, and collaborative model of learning in classrooms, in which the production as well as consumption of information is promoted (Alam and McLoughlin, 2010). Freier and Li (2016) found the quality of student writing improved through use of Wikipedia in an economics class. Calhoun (2014) noted benefits to incorporating Wikipedia in university library information literacy training for students, including topic development for assessment, identifying keywords for building search strategies, and finding additional resources. Oliver (2015) advocated using Wikipedia to help students develop literacy skills, such as critical evaluation of articles and sources. Walker and Ye (2016) demonstrated that Wikipedia facilitated development of information literacy skills in a chemistry environment, helping students to provide context for topics, identify definitions and terms, act as a quick source for chemical data, and provide a portal to useful references. McKenzie et al. (2018) echoed this finding, calling Wikipedia a living laboratory that facilitates flexible assessment that can be scaled in size and complexity for teaching literacy skills. The usefulness of Wikipedia in teaching students digital literacy continues to garner support (Cortez, 2018 ; Di Lauro and Johinke, 2017 ; Okoli et al., 2014 ; Sundin, 2011). These studies about Wikipedia as a learning environment are further supported by studies about wikis generally, which have similarly indicated that the active learning space of a wiki promotes collective participation in producing content (Duffy and Bruns, 2006 ; Hewege and Perera, 2013), encourages student development of creative collaboration, consensus building, and technical literacy (Benckendorff, 2009), and offers a flexible, intuitive learning environment, requiring minimal technological knowledge (Caple and Bogle (2011).



16This project focused on the potential skills acquisition for digital citizenship among university students studying information research skills and applying learning to the development of a Wikipedia article. The objective of this work was to explore the impact of students’ engagement with core literacy skills learning in the context of the collaborative authoring environment of Wikipedia.

The project process

17In the first Irish university partnership with Wikipedia’s Educational Programme (WEP), students in an Information and Communications Studies course, focused on information and digital literacy skills development, collaborated on researching and writing biographical articles about historical Irish figures for the online encyclopedia. The course, DigiComp : Core Competencies for Digital Citizenship, runs annually, and with each offering has explored preparing students to conduct information research and produce digital articles. The current, evolved process for research on this course involves identifying historical Irish figures who have only “stub” articles, that is an entry in Wikipedia, but minimal information gathered about them. The stub article approach allows students to focus on their digital research skills development, as opposed to identifying people for new articles which could take time to vet through Wikipedia editors.

18The context of the course enabled scaffolded learning around a range of skills required to locate information, evaluate information, and incorporate information into articles. WEP Liaisons worked closely with the class to facilitate development of appropriate tone, information sources, and article structure for preparing content for the encyclopedia.

19An Editathon at the end of the course, which was open to the university community, enabled students to learn advanced technical skills for editing content to Wikipedia and to showcase their new-found digital competencies.

Data collection

20Data collection took place during the Wikipedia Editathon. Students were asked to evaluate their Wikipedia experience and to reflect on how their Wikipedia work has influenced their learning and thinking about participation in digital spaces.

21Students were asked for written feedback at the Editathon at the end of the course to capture their response to their participation in producing a Wikipedia article. Collecting feedback at the end of the Editathon also allowed students to reflect on their overall engagement with the online environment and on how they might leverage or might think more critically about collaborative online publishing in their studies and careers.

Data analyses

22Data gathered were compiled and analysed qualitatively line-by-line for patterns in learning noted by students. Patterns observed were categorised thematically.


23The Wikipedia project in Ireland was declared with University College Dublin’s Research Ethics Committee. All student participants were aged 18 years or older. A letter of information explaining the research and a consent form were provided to student participants.


New information skills and technical skills

24The combination of preparing content for Wikipedia alongside becoming literate around finding, verifying, evaluating, managing, and using information on the course, helped students think critically about the information research they conducted. The scaffolding of learning across the course enabled students to focus on particular information skills each week and to apply new skills to research tasks for their Wikipedia projects.

25Working collaboratively was not always easy for students. Learning how to edit with others was a very different approach from traditional forms of university assessment. Importantly, the experience helped them consider collaborative roles they would undertake in their university studies, the workplace, and their everyday lives as digital citizens.

26They also acquired essential technical digital skills for editing Wikipedia. While students are often considered to be digital natives, working with the wiki interface was new to them, and provided them with technical skills they can apply to future online participation in other online venues.

Digital researchers

27University education focuses not only in the acquisition of subject-based knowledge, but also importantly on information literacies that underpin this learning, including research skills. In addition to the literacy skills associated with finding, evaluating, managing, and using information, students further learned essential research skills around working with information ethically and appropriately. They also learned problem-solving approaches to matching information and sources to questions arising as they conducted their Information research. The skills acquired offered a foundation for students to develop further as researchers, providing a basis for them to progress toward primary research endeavours.

Prosumers, instead of consumers alone

28While students generally reported that they were not permitted to use Wikipedia in their university studies, the project afforded them the opportunity to assess appropriate uses of the online encyclopedia for themselves. The information and digital literacy skills learned during the course enabled students to evaluate the process of collecting and disseminating factual information in an encyclopedia article. The combined use of critical literacy and digital skills, and Wikipedia editing and technical skills, moved students forward from consumers of the encyclopedia’s content to prosumers, or consumers and producers of content.

29Student reflections on acquired learning revealed a new understanding of students’ potential roles as creators of information, as opposed to consumers of information. Instead of simply using Wikipedia as a source of information, students gathered a first-hand understanding of how articles in the online encyclopedia are created and managed by the Wikipedia community. Students reported that their engagement with the online encyclopedia helped them understand how information and misinformation may be represented in a public forum.

30With understanding came confidence. After working with Wikipedia, students spoke not only of their development of particular information and technical skills, but also of their new-found appreciation of the potential impact they could have on the digital environment as active social participants.

31The process has the potential to enable greater digital resilience in coping with information online through critical thinking. Providing a learning context that involves academic and Wikipedia expertise around gathering, evaluating, and presenting information effectively in a public forum enabled students to explore the multiple components of literacies that prepare individuals for digital citizenship. In particular, understanding how to identify bias and misinformation is critical for developing coping mechanisms that support digital citizenship :

Importantly, information literacy is empowering, and is an important contributor to democratic, inclusive, participatory societies ; as interpreted by UNESCO, it is a universal human right (CILIP, 2018 : 3).

32Students’ experience with preparing content for Wikipedia helps to fulfil this goal.


33Wikipedia can offer a useful tool for helping students develop essential digital research skills through active engagement with information, research, and critical thinking. As other researchers, for example, Carleton et al. (2017) and Oliver (2015), have reported, Wikipedia provided a very useful environment for developing research and communication skills among university students working together toward writing an article for the online encyclopedia.

34While this project, similar to other teaching and learning initiatives employing Wikipedia in various ways, has resulted in a positive classroom application and exploration of the possible utility of Wikipedia in learning, involving Wikipedia in the classroom was a novel approach in higher education in Ireland for this project, although other instructors are now also using the tool to accomplish a range of tasks in the university classroom. The range of ways in which instructors are now using Wikipedia demonstrates the versatility of this tool for learning and offers multiple pathways to developing digital citizenship moving forward.

35The students in this particular case were positive about their experience, and whether or not they believed Wikipedia was an accurate source, they found collaboratively authoring via this tool was beneficial. The experience afforded them the opportunity to think critically and to decide for themselves how they trusted or mistrusted the online encyclopedia, as well as information found through a variety of sources generally.

36Working with Wikipedia to facilitate student development of digital literacies has become an annual collaboration. From beginning as a classroom innovation to explore how information is created digitally in the context of an online encyclopedia, the project has grown to provide students with a significant learning opportunity. Student takeaways from their experience of creating and editing articles in Wikipedia underscore the utility of the project.


37While individual initiatives are proving useful, a sustainable, national approach would offer many advantages for education. A community of practice is possible and desirable. Gathering together the body of teaching expertise and learning opportunities through Wikipedia offers a first step toward creating such a community. Collected teaching practice can facilitate other instructors at all educational levels in their consideration of integrating Wikipedia into classroom learning. In addition, this collective work can be utilised to develop digital skills among students, as well as among other interested groups. The one-day conference in Maynooth has demonstrated the interest, both nationally in Ireland and internationally, for collaboration in university partnerships with Wikipedia.

38Planning is now underway to achieve these wider educational goals. A project has been initiated to bring together academics, information professionals, university students, and local community groups to share their practice and gather data about how Wikipedia may be utilised to maximise digital engagement and achievement in higher education, as well as contribute to community development. For instance, more research is needed about how digital skills learned in the classroom translate into digital participation in the workplace and the impact of this learning on the workplace and in communities. How do students utilise what they learn about collaborative authorship as they move forward in their careers ? This is a rich field of inquiry and the questions are many for researchers to explore.

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Crystal Fulton



University College Dublin,

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