I’ve written many times about Jon Beasley-Murray’s awe-inspiring work with Wikipedia in his courses. I’ve always hoped that this approach could be applied more widely, so when Dr. James Heilman, another UBC Wikipedian, offered to hook us up with the Wikipedia Education Program (WEP), I was enthused. Last fall, we had a very well-attended session on Wikipedia in Higher Education, featuring great talks by Jon and James, and a virtual visit from Dr. Jonathan Obar from the WEP.
The discussion was excellent, the energy was exciting, it felt like a perfect event. But to be honest, I was a little disappointed by the outcome. I think the session did generate interest and activity in using the somewhat safer UBC Wiki (we’ve seen consistent growth in terms of coursework), but my hopes of creating a cohort of five or six instructors in the WEP, and training some UBC-based Campus Ambassadors, never really materialized. In retrospect, I wish I had worked those angles harder.
Thankfully, UBC Professor of History Tina Loo is as adventurous in her practice as she is on the mountains. She took advantage of the WEP on her own, and developed a set of amazing resources on North American Environmental History over the last semester.
Tina has written a detailed and insightful overview of her process, and I urge you to read it. It’s hard to isolate just a few key quotes, but some themes jumped out at me.
On student engagement:
…what led me to experiment was something far more prosaic and self-centred; namely my frustrations in the classroom. For the past two years, a pile of unclaimed HIST 396 term papers has accumulated in the corner of my office, evidence of my failure to engage students adequately. It was as if the energy and anxiety that went into these fifteen- to eighteen-page tomes dissipated completely when they were handed in. The authors of these abandoned papers didn’t, it seems, care how their ideas and arguments resonated with their audience – me. Increasingly, it seemed ridiculous to have students spend time doing something they weren’t interested in and for me to spend time doing something they weren’t interested in; namely writing comments.
…The public nature of Wikipedia, and the fact students felt they were contributing to something that would live on after the class was over made the task of writing an entry exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. The self-consciousness that came from writing something that wasn’t just for me, a TA, or, at most, the other students in the class, translated into a level of care about both the form and content of their writing that I don’t always see.
Nor was it just the size of the audience that made them self-conscious; it was also who was in the audience. For instance, the entries on hydro dams in British Columbia attracted the attention of an engineer with Hydro Quebec (a self-confessed “dam geek”), a bureaucrat with the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines, and people who lived in communities adjacent to the dam.
On embracing the risk of working in the open:
When Wikipedians like these took issue with what they wrote, the students couldn’t just be self-conscious: they also had to respond. Learning how to explain why they had written what they had, to defend it respectfully, and to modify it in light of valid criticism was incredibly valuable. I was impressed with how the students stood up for themselves, especially given that not all community members abided by the first rule of Wikipedia: “Don’t bite the newbies!”
…No amount of in-class peer review or comments from me on drafts could replicate the range of questions that came from the Wikipedia community. Agree or not with the substance or tone of their comments, the contributions these anonymous Wikipedians made to my students’ learning is why I consider that I outsourced part of my teaching last term.
On enriching traditional and “new” literacy skills:
In the end, the value of the Wikipedia assignment lies in giving students first hand experience in constructing knowledge. Writing the articles showed them how it’s made; that it changes over time, and it does so in part as a result of competition and cooperation. Knowledge is a compromise, willing and grudging. It’s the outcome of exercising power and it is powerful.
Even though students wrote encyclopedia entries rather than conventional essays, the way they did so – through a Wiki – taught them important lessons about the nature of knowledge and the construction of arguments. In this case, the [social] medium was the [learning] message.
So… highly engaged students, enriched research and composition, creating useful public resources (read by thousands) — without spending a dime on proprietary software, and nobody needs an iPad to play along. Direct and indirect support was provided by the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community.
As it stands, the Wikipedia Education Program is eager to enlist more schools. If you are in Canada, drop Jonathan Obar a line, you will almost certainly receive an enthusiastic welcome and remarkable support in your journey.
In the meantime, kudos to Jon, James, Tina and the others who are charting the path.