Wikipedia session at #MobilityShifts

I’m writing this from my hotel room on 30th Street, Manhattan. Looking out of the window I’m confronted with huge buildings and more windows than I can count (if you’ve seen the film ‘Rear Window’ you’ll kind of understand what I’m getting at).

If this blog post was a Wikipedia article, that first paragraph would probably have been edited by now. The name of the hotel would have been included, questions would have been raised on the ‘Talk’ page about just how many windows there were (could I perhaps point to a reputable source?), and a link to the Wikipedia page for ‘Rear Window’ added. It’s not, and there weren’t, but this brings me nicely to the session I attended today led by Frank Shulenburg, originally titled Wikipedia and academia: friends at last?

According to the programme, Frank’s session should have been a presentation about the global education programme the Wikimedia Foundation have embarked upon in partnership with several universities. However, in an appropriately wiki sort of way, Frank skilfully accepted suggestions, amendments and tangents from the audience, turning the hour and a half session almost into a workshop. I love it when form and content come together and, if asked in future to give an example of what I mean by this, Frank’s session is what I shall recount.

Let me explain. Frank started off by saying that he’d prepared three things:

  1. A short presentation about what the Wikimedia Foundation do and what they’ve been up to with their global education programme.
  2. A closer look at Wikipedia (a peek behind the scenes, as it were)
  3. An opportunity for us to get in to groups and think about how we can integrate Wikipedia into our classrooms.

When asked, a show of hands from delegates demonstrated that most people were there for option 1 (Frank’s presentation). Interestingly, no-one voted for option 3!

How we got to where we are

As it was, Frank managed to combine all three points in a very partcipatory way. For example, he started by getting us all on our feet and turning the room into a physical continuum between ‘Strongly Agree’ on the right and ‘Strongly Disagree’ on the left. He proceeded to read out some statements about Wikipedia (e.g. ‘Wikipedia is a democracy’) and get us to move to a place on the continuum representing our views. Once in position, he asked each ‘camp’ why they had moved that way, never giving a judgement but instead teasing out points and allowing people to respond to each other. This was a great way to start as it got us interacting straight away and, without Frank having to tell us, demonstrated how philosophically complex it is to place online (and sustain) a freely-editable encyclopedia.

Once we’d done this, Frank gave an overview of Wikipedia’s fairly humble beginning to where it is now. Did you know, for instance, that the page for Physics originally read ‘Physics is a very broad subject’? Wikipedia’s success (it is the fifth most-visited website behind the like of Google and MSN) has been achieved with zero dollars spent on promotion, a very small team of staff (currently 89) and a non-profit structure. In fact, says Frank, he remembers a time when they used someone’s car for a conference room as they didn’t have enough space! So where does Wikipedia’s success come from? Answer: It’s users. There are upwards of 100,000 Wikipedia editors (known as ‘Wikipedians’) working towards fulfilling the vision of founder Jimmy Wales:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” (Jimmy Wales)

As Clay Shirky noted in his book Cognitive Surplus, the total amount of human effort (in hours) spent improving Wikipedia is huge, but tiny compared with the amount of TV-watching the human race does as a whole. It certainly got me thinking about the best use of my time!

Wikipedia and academia

Returning to the Wikimedia Foundation’s global education project, Frank said that they noticed a large and sustained increase in the numbers of professors using Wikipedia for projects with their classes. When they got in touch with them to ask how they could help, the professors’ response was that they wanted support, including printed matter for students. A 17-month pilot programme followed in which professors and their students worked through the following stages:

  1. Training
  2. Planning
  3. Introduction
  4. Analysis
  5. Research
  6. Writing
  7. Evaluation

Two of the most important stages, noted Frank, are Stage 4 (Analysis) and Stage 7 (Evaluation). The former helps deepen students’ media literacy skills by getting them to ask of a Wikipedia article, ‘What’s missing?’, ‘Is this from a neutral point of view?’, and so on. The latter, Evaluation, was took various forms at the different educational institutions involved in the pilot. Some gave credit based on a study of the Wikipedia page’s edit history, others asked students to give a presentation, yet others set a reflective essay. The results? From a response rate of 48% (pretty good!) they found that, all told, 72% of students preferred working on the Wikipedia article than on more traditional forms of assessment. Some of the reasons given included authenticity and ‘real-life’ work.

Finally, and with a Wikipedian in the room who gave Frank a hand, we were given a quick look behind the scenes of Wikipedia. During the discussions, one of the delegates had admitted to ‘vandalising’ Wikipedia whilst at school but she had always wondered how they had ‘caught’ her doing so. Frank put up on screen the ‘Recent Changes’ page and also demonstrated the way in which, if you ‘star’ a page once logged-in, you can have your own personal Recent Changes page. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, therefore, are monitoring their favourite pages for changes. Any alterations not improving the quality of articles are therefore picked up quickly and reverted to previous versions.


I came at this session with my experience of both using a wiki extensively in my everyday role at JISC infoNet (we use PBworks) and having asked students to edit the Simple English version of Wikipedia when in the classroom. To my mind, we have a responsibility to the young people of today to prepare them adequately for the world as they experience it now and will experience it in future. To do that, we need new forms of assessment (which is why I’m all for initiatives such as Open Badges and DML Badges). We do students a disservice by continuing unimaginative and potentially exclusionary grading practices.

As I argued along with Pragmatist philosophers such as C.S. Peirce and William James in my Ed.D. thesis ‘truth’ is what a community of inquirers agree upon in the long run. It’s like an asymptopic line with knowledge constantly in flux. Teaching students to use and edit Wikipedia responsibly can only help them becoming more fluent in Digital and New Media Literacies. It was an excellent session, and an auspicious start to the Mobility Shifts conference. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the week!

3 Things I’ve Learned about NYC today…

  • A ‘block’ is not a standard length. Walking 50 blocks, even on a sunny day, is a very long way.
  • Don’t go up the Empire State Building on a public holiday (it’s Columbus Day)
  • Prices are confusing because they don’t include sales tax.

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf