Learning Wikipedian

Learning Wikipedian

Last March-April (2013) I participated in a free, online course offered through the Peer 2 Peer University School of Open on “Writing Wikipedia Articles: The Basics and Beyond.” The Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) describes itself as “a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements.” The Wikipedia course was created and expertly facilitated by Pete Forsyth, a seasoned Wikipedia contributor and the Project Lead for the Communicate OER project, and Sara Frank Bristow, Project Manager for Communicate OER. They have also organized online “reunions” and have actively encouraged former class participants to continue to participate in the Communicate OER project, thoughtfully extending the reach and impact of the course far beyond its completion date.

I took the course the first time it was offered, and it succeeded in doing for me everything that was promised. I learned so much: how Wikipedia works (I never noticed the “Talk” page tab on every article until I took the course!), the code needed to edit articles, and a lot about the culture behind the Wikipedia community (and there definitely is one), including how to contribute responsibly and helpfully to the Wikipedia project.  I also learned a great deal about about open educational resources (OER), since that was the topic around which the course was organized, and I came away inspired by the people who are dedicating themselves to making educational resources accessible to all.

A major strength of the course was that it was structured around weekly facilitated sessions and optional weekly facilitated labs.  And enrollment was capped, so it wasn’t an enormous MOOC. By the end of the course, I felt like I really got to know something about Pete and Sarah, as well as many of the class participants, because I’d interacted with them twice weekly in real time for six weeks. My fellow students included a teacher and former journalist from Germany, a sociologist from Barcelona, an American professor of digital humanities, a PhD student from New Zealand, and several others who preferred to remain more anonymous.  I think the majority were women.

I have yet to earn my #WikiSOO Burba Badge to put on my Wikipedia user page, but I’m half-way there. And I coordinated a Global Women in Wikipedia Write-In at the UCLA Library soon after the course ended.

Some of the biggest takeaways for me, besides feeling much more confident about editing articles, included:

  • Learning that expertise can sometimes be a liability, since it could create conflict of interest (i.e., you’re working on an article because you have a direct interest in it that’s related to your livelihood out in the world).  This dilemma can be addressed by being up front about your connection to the topic, by contributing broadly to other articles that pose no conflict of interest to establish a reputation as an impartial editor, and/or by creating an article that lies within your field of expertise, but then letting it sit long enough for other editors to weigh in.
  • Deciding by consensus is a very important principle in article editing, as well as general civility.
  • Discovering that you can start contributing more or less right away, before knowing everything there is to know about Wikipedia – the other editors provide a kind of safety net.
  • Learning that Wikipedia does have romanization standards for Cyrillic and other non-Roman alphabets.
  • Finding out that it’s ok to translate from more comprehensive non-English Wikipedia articles to enhance the English article on the same subject. (Although it’s good practice to leave a link to the original article on the “Talk” page or in the “Edits” comments.)
  • Realizing that it’s hard to write neutrally, using only verifiable information.

I decided to sign up for “Writing Wikipedia Articles: The Basics and Beyond” because, as a professor and as a librarian, I was skeptical of Wikipedia as a source for research while, at the same time, I was intrigued by its potential for fostering student learning if editing is incorporated into a course’s design.  Now, I have a great deal more respect for the Wikipedia project as well as a much better understanding of what I’m looking at when I see an article. And I think it could be a marvelous teaching tool, giving students the opportunity to work on something real and out there in the world while they learn about proper citation, the difference between a secondary and a tertiary source,  how to write neutrally, and how to work with others to achieve consensus.

I’m still kind of bemused by the fact that there are so many people who willingly work for free to create and edit articles on such a mind-boggling array of topics, but even if I don’t entirely get it, it’s still pretty amazing.