As I’ve mentioned previously, I am teaching a course entitled Media Technology & Cultural Change this semester, which offers an overview of digital media criticism and creation. Per the recent hooplah around Wikipedia, I’m having students engage with wikis both as a cultural phenomenon and mode of expression. The students are creating their own wiki, which serves as a collective final exam for the course. They are also engaging with the world’s largest wiki, both to familiarize themselves with the protocols and to get a better sense of how Wikipedia works and its limitations. Unlike many classes, my course involves no formal research projects, so I cannot ask them to directly share their research on Wikipedia. But recognizing that expertise comes in many forms & areas, I’ve asked my students to look up something that they know a lot about, and then see how they might be able to improve the current entries. Here are some of their stories, with lessons learned and links to their blogs. [Note that of my 15 students, only one had ever edited Wikipedia before this assignment, and most of them were unaware of the mechanics that make wikis distinct.]
Aaron was one of the first to dive into Wikipedia, choosing to edit an entry on a Columbian volcano that he’d previously written a research paper about. As he blogged about his experiences, the act of becoming an editor made feel invested in a topic that he’d otherwise just learned about as an assignment. Simply the act of sharing his knowledge made him feel like an expert and care about a remote subject. He followed up by considering how other people’s edits to his information made him feel part of a community, even though the other editor was anonymous and remote. Another facet that Aaron seemed to glean from the experience is how sites like Wikipedia use templates & norms for organizing information, a lesson that is central to any medium or form of expression.
Paxson created a new entry on Eagle Peak, a mountain near his hometown in Alaska. He discovered that unlike Aaron’s entry, nobody seems invested in this topic, as he’s the only editor who has contributed. But he did learn a lesson about copyright, as he uploaded his own photo of the mountain, which was immediately tagged for lacking the proper copyright – he needed to give it a public domain, GPL, or Creative Commons license to fit with Wikipedia policy. Although we’ll be reading about copyright issues later in the semester, this hands-on experience with the practicalities of the system are far more pedagogically striking.
Luisa also created a new entry, based on the organization she worked for in January, but her entry has attracted other editors to expand and build upon her foundation. As she writes, the process of editing is like ants building something much larger, which she sees as an exciting mode of participation.
Astri created two entries as well despite the fact that she was a complete Wikipedia novice. She reflects on her experiences of feeling both excited about the possibilities, and conscious of how much of an “accent” she exhibited due to unfamiliarity with the wiki protocols – but a willingness to gain fluency.
Scott had a less productive experience – he created an entry for the Middlebury College hockey team, which was “speedy deleted” for not justifying its notability. Scott & I sat down and together rebuilt the entry, following the template for other college sports teams with me teaching him some of the language & protocols for wiki editing, an experience which certainly increased his fluency and strengthened his awareness of how Wikipedia functions as a self-regulating process.
Andrew edited an eclectic topic based on previous coursework: jaguars in Mesoamerica. As he blogged, he found the experience intimidating at first, as he was uncomfortable both with the wiki language and the public nature of Wikipedia, but he soon found the process empowering & exciting, especially after having his edits praised by another Wikipedian – and wished that other courses would encourage such participation.
Other students had interesting experiences as well, but to synthesize the impact of the assignment: I’m really happy with the results, as students have clearly discovered what goes into a Wikipedia entry and thus will be better prepared to know how best to use the site in the future. They seem to understand experientially how wikis create community, effectively follow & enforce rules rather endorse anarchy, and generate enthusiasm. The history & discussion tabs have been demystified, and they’re on the road to losing their “accents” in wiki-coding.
I always preach that media & information literacy is best achieved through a combination of criticism (teaching & reading about a medium) and practice (actually using a medium to create) – this exercise certainly seemed to support this pedagogy. But I’d love comments from others on their own experiences of wiki-awakening and pedagogy.
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