Wave of new Wikipedia articles by oceanography students


The English Wikipedia.org now hosts a significantly larger number of articles on oceanography, after forty students in Dynamical Oceanography, part of the Climate Physics Master’s programme, have each submitted an article to the platform as part of their course assignments.

“I was really impressed with the quality of the articles”, says Dr Erik van Sebille, the lecturer on the course. “The students clearly put a lot of effort in making their articles comprehensive yet accessible for a broad audience as possible. And the requirement that the articles had to have at least one graphical element got out the artist in many of the students.”

“I really liked this assignment,” said Frank Schippers, one of the students in the course. “I think it is very cool that we are actually contributing to accessible knowledge about oceanography rather than writing a paper that only the lecturer will read.”

Schematic response of the Eulerian cell and eddy overturning circulation driven by wind stress ({\displaystyle \tau }\tau ) and buoyancy fluxes in the Southern Ocean. The thin black lines represent the isopycnals, which slope down toward Antartica. The Eulerian mean cell ({\displaystyle {\overline {\psi }}}{\displaystyle {\overline {\psi }}}) rotates clockwise and counteracts the eddy induced circulation which rotates counterclockwise.
Schematic response of the Eulerian cell and eddy overturning circulation, made by one of the students

Broad audience

By expanding the oceanographic knowledge that is accessible to the broad public, the students help to increase the level of public engagement with oceanography. This was only possible because Wikipedia has such a broad audience. Given that Wikipedia's audience includes lay people and professionals alike, this forced the students to break down highly complex concepts into relatively simple terms and required an in-depth understanding of the material. Students were further asked to include at least one schematic or illustration in their article. “Such a requirement forces students to approach the explanation of the phenomenon in both a written and visual way,” says Ina Nagler, one of the teaching assistants for the course, and points to the article on Eddy saturation and compensation by Anke van Dijk as an excellent example of both a visual and written explanation.

Becoming immortal

“This winter, as I was preparing the course, I realised that a final exam would be challenging to organise because of COVID”, says Van Sebille. “So I went to look for other, more engaging forms of assessment.”

Van Sebille was inspired by Dr Sanli Faez, also of the physics department, to use the Wikipedia platform in teaching. Faez said that his main motivation to choose this form “was to encourage students to contribute to something bigger than just our class and their output stays (much) longer than the course. I tell them, jokingly, that they can see it as an opportunity of becoming immortal, but I know that is a bit too cheesy.” He himself got the idea from Prof Alard Mosk, for whose quantum optics class Faez wrote an article himself back in 2007 on the Jaynes-Cummings model, that is still available.

Peer feedback

Given the lack of opportunities for in-person teaching throughout the last academic year, Van Sebille split the assignment into smaller steps with their own deadlines, which allowed for feedback from lecturers and peers alike. Wikipedia's interactive editing environment allowed students to correct each other's articles and include the cross-references so vital to the platform. Nagler supported the entire writing process: “It was really amazing to see how the articles improved over the weeks. This Wikipedia assignment allowed students to gain experience in producing written output relatively autonomously while still having access to the guidance and supervision they may need.”