host a wikimedian: you can’t afford not to

wikimediaconf2017-Highton[1]This week I spoke at a Wikimedia Edu conference. I spoke about the value of wikimedians in residence (WiR) for higher education (HE).  Some people have told me they can’t afford to host a wikimedian. I would argue you can’t afford not to.

There are 3 main reasons why you can’t afford not to. They are:

  1. Universities must invest in digital skills.
  2. Gender inequality in science and technology is a real thing.
  3. Wikimedians will save us from Wikimedians.

Universities must invest in the development of digital skills for staff and for students. The senior managers in your institutions will be well aware of the recent HEPI report and numerous other reports. Which urge universities to pay attention to digital skills. It is widely recognised that digital capabilities are a key component of graduate employability. To stay competitive globally, ‘the UK must ensure it has the necessary pool of (highly) digitally skilled graduates to support and drive research and innovation throughout the  economy.’

Universities do invest- some more than others. Some employ IT skills trainers, information literacy librarians, study skill tutors, they buy a site-wide license for Lynda.com. For staff they invest in staff development units, learning and development teams. They choose writing for the web training, social media training,  data management skills,  public engagement training, they choose coding for all.

If you are in a university, go look how much those digital skills trainers are paid, that is what you should be paying your wikimedian. If you have a wikimedian hiding in your library, it’s time to come out from behind the stacks and engage with the real business of teaching and learning.

We can’t afford not to develop graduates’ digital capabilities; universities need digitally-skilled staff with digitally-enabled experience.

The formal recognition of students’ digital capabilities is also important. Technology can make it easier to develop authentic learning experiences that are relevant to the labour market and help  students demonstrate their skills to employers.

If you put your wikimedian alongside your digital skill trainers and learning technologists.  Their impact can be significant.

wikimediaconf2017-Highton[1]And it’s not just about editing skills, it’s about open data, replicability, re-use, understanding sources, spotting fake news, understanding analytics, understanding copyright, being part of communities on line. Writing in different styles. Understanding how robot editors and human editors work together- all that new ‘digital labour’.

With HE students and staff wikipedia leads to discussions about privilige and geographies of knowledge, transparency, bias, and if there is ever a ‘neutral’ point of view.  If our staff and students choose to participate in developing new tools, they are developing tools as part of a world-wide  open-source software development project, which is  a significant authentic opportunity.

Gender inequality in science and technology is a real thing, and that is the second reason why you can’t afford not to have a wikimedian in residence.

Your institutions will all be participating in Athena Swan initiatives to some extent.  To achieve Athena Swan awards departments must show how their workplaces and practices tackle the structural barriers for women working in academia, specifically in the STEM disciplines. The Athena Swan assessors like to see evidence of networks and activities, highlighting achievements, and role models and  visibility.

One of our early editathons at Edinburgh – focusing on the Edinburgh 7– the first women to study medicine,  was cited as an example of good practice by the institution in preparing our submission for silver award. Edinburgh was the first of the Scottish institutions to gain that award. The challenges of overcoming structural inequalities which mitigate against  women’s contributions  is an endeavor higher education shares with Wikipedia. It is not enough to say women don’t participate because they don’t have time or technical skills. It is not enough to say that if women learned to behave more like men they would be able to fit in or join in. It is not enough to say that the world of Wikipedia- and science in general- is ‘neutral and fact driven’ and thus free from bias.

wikimediaconf2017-Highton[1]The first step maybe to target articles about women, and recruit new female editors, but  as soon as you go a step beyond that, and apply some kind of Wikipedia Bechdel test –does an article about a woman scientist draw upon a credible source written by a woman? Do those credible sources about women scientists exist, if not why not?  You quickly come up against a wider structural issue about womens participation in academia and scholarship, and promotion, and publication.*

So I suppose my point here is that if you are making a business case for a WiR and you can’t get the funding straight away from the digital skills budget holder, you might be able reference your own institution’s Athena Swan activity and show how the kind of work activities a WiR would do would deliver successful, measurable outcomes for gender equality initiatives.

Which brings me to the third reason why you need a Wikimedian in Residence- is because dealing with Wikimedia is a job in itself.

Wikimedia has developed, in quite a short time,  a particular culture amongst its community. Also it’s tools , toys and projects are growing at a rate of knots.  It’s hard to keep up unless you are immersed.

Sprawling bureaucracy and policy labyrinth is very familiar to those in HE- particularly those in ancient institutions. We also know about exclusive language and communities of practice. There is some irony in the fact that Wikipedia cannot explain itself clearly. Its policies, its processes, its rules and community.

What I have learned from hosting a WiR to develop curriculum activities for students is that is it just not that simple. I was lucky to get one who is already a teacher, because he has had to do a lot of work to ‘translate’ Wkimedia’s policies and processes into ways we can engage.

wikimediaconf2017-Highton[1]Editing as an individual is a different activity than editing as a group or class. Classroom activities – learning and teaching activities- need to be carefully designed and structured and although this can be done successfully it takes a bit of work and that’s what we need a resident to help us with. So if Wikipedia can meet educators halfway and explain its process simply & effectively (e.g. a detailed lesson plans, a robust Visual Editor, easy to follow video tutorials etc) that would really help teachers and trainers in their workplace.

We can’t expect learners and teachers to bend themselves completely out-of-shape to accommodate Wikipedia when there are things we can do quite simply to which would bridge the gap: highlighting its rubrics, assessment criteria, word count tools, plagiarism & copyright detectors and past course assignments & materials etc. Modelling good practice and sharing exemplars will lead to takeup in courses.

Students come to classes and staff come to staff development sessions to learn in groups and that group work activity requires time, effort and resources before during and after. We are working towards that at Edinburgh, creating and sharing re-usable lesson plans and models for classroom activities, but it is that ‘translation’ role between the technology and the teachers which is missing.

‘Twas ever thus in learning technology. This is not new, this is what learning technologists do. It is timely for Wikipedia now.

And in return, we  will enrich content with our collections and expand the range of knowledge covered. We will contribute not only our research to Wikipedia but do research with and about Wikipedia. We will use the data sets being shared and study how the work of knowledge sharing and gathering is conducted.

And hopefully we will all end up pulling in the same direction.

 

  • Please read
    Heather Ford and  Judy Wajcman
    ‘Anyone can edit’, not everyone does: Wikipedia’s infrastructure and the gender gap’
    Article in Social Studies of Science, May 2017

 

2 comments

  1. Following successful collaborations with Wikimedia in 2015, the University of Edinburgh are hosting a Wikimedian in Residence in 2016 as part of a year-long project to advocate and raise awareness of Open Knowledge, working with academic staff, students, library archive staff and Wikimedians throughout Scotland.

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