Normally, Victoria Austen reads the work of her students. Now, that work is read by thousands.
Austen, a classics lecturer at the University of Winnipeg, assigned something novel to the students taking her course online on Roman Britain this past winter to help them virtually engage with the material.
Rather than writing and submitting a final paper to her, the 17 young academics trained as Wikipedia editors before using their academic research skills to edit and rewrite 17 articles relevant to the course.
The Wikipedia Education Program is an independent branch of the website that provides tools to educators to incorporate Wikipedia editing into their courses.
Austen has been a Wikipedia editor since 2019, after getting involved in a United Kingdom-based project meant to improve and add biographies of female classics scholars to the open-source online encyclopedia to reduce gender imbalance.
"I’ve been really interested in this public-facing engagement and the benefits of using Wikipedia for a long time, so that’s where my personal interest came from," Austen said.
She said she thought the program would be good for her class as students and to raise their spirits.
"I knew that the work going into creating the wiki pages was just as rigorous as producing a final essay, but I felt like this would give them a boost toward the end (of the winter semester)… They’re really feeling pandemic-ed out at this point," she said.
"I thought, we need to do something different and liven it up for them. And I thought it was really great for them to have this opportunity at the end of the class, to be able to say, ‘Look mom, dad, friends, this is what I’ve been doing in class’ — it’s not this insular thing."
Austen noted such work can also improve digital literacy.
"That increase of digital literacy skills is just so important and I think it’s become really obvious as something we need to develop in this online, pandemic world."
One of Austen’s students, Marina Milne, didn’t expect to be published during her undergraduate studies
"But for this project, there was an immediacy in the research and that was really exciting, to write something out and be able to put it out there in the world and immediately — hopefully, help the base of information online," said Milne, who will enter her fourth year as a double honours classics and history major in the fall.
Students typically write argumentative essays to prove a conclusion based on their research, but not so with this project.
"We’re (usually) writing for someone who understands the topic, whereas for Wikipedia it was an exercise… to be able to take the information, understand what the author is trying to say, but put it in our own words that are generally understandable to a wider audience," Milne said.
"That was really interesting because we are doing this as a university class, so it’s easy for us to have access to... those sources, but I imagine it could be difficult for someone doing this for their own interest to have access to these (academic) sources."
Austen said research projects like the one she assigned her Roman Britain students help them to truly understand the material.
"(This is) writing toward an audience that is basically going in with no knowledge at all. That’s a very different skill to writing a paper that I’m reading and... they assume I’m going to know these basic facts. It’s really important to learn that skill of directing your research to an audience that may have zero understanding — this is the first thing they’re ever reading on a topic, how are you going to explain it to them?" Austen said.
"Having to articulate things in their own words, in language that is accessible to a lot of people, that actually forces students to have a much deeper level of understanding because I think a real test of... (knowledge retention) is being able to explain it."
The 17 articles her students edited have been viewed more than 400,000 times.
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.