Month: July 2018

Academia and Wikipedia – a presentation at Maynooth University on 18 June 2018

Below is what I said at the Academia and Wikipedia Conference held at Maynooth University on 18 June 2018. My slides are here.

I have been working at the University of Edinburgh for two and a half years now in this rather strange sounding role of Wikimedian in Residence. My role here today is to explain a little about what I do at the University of Edinburgh and why we think there is a need for all universities to engage with Wikimedia.

So the Academia and Wikipedia conference is a very timely conference for the work we have been doing.

Academia and Wikipedia. This is a huge discussion right now. It needs to be. Not least in terms of what value we as higher education institutions place in students, staff and members of the public being conversant with how knowledge is created, curated and contested online and with the digital intermediaries that govern our daily lives. Beyond this in terms of what value we place on the transparency of knowledge sharing and having somewhere online you can go to orientate yourself on a topic and students can contribute their scholarship for the common good.

Because I take the view that there is a huge & pivotal role for universities to play in this discussion.

Full disclosure, I was not born a Wikimedian. Although I am interested in all the things so perhaps I was. My background is in Software Development, English & Media teaching and Information Management and the work we do at the University of Edinburgh draws on all 3 of these aspects.

So what can I tell you about the residency itself?

I can tell you that it started, and has continued, with information literacy and digital skills at its heart. Our IT director, Melissa Highton, was asked at the time what strategies could be employed to help better meet the information literacy and digital skills needs of our staff and students at the university, and how could we better meet our commitment to sharing open knowledge.

Working with Wikimedia ticked all these boxes.

But because the University of Edinburgh is a research-based institution, Professor Allison Littlejohn from the Open University was invited to come along to our first editing event in 2015 to help us make sure there was value in a collaboration with Wikimedia UK and to analyse what was going on in these editing events and what their impact actually was. And what she discovered was that there was indeed genuine formal and informal learning going on at these events and she’s produced two research papers arising from that 1 event.

The first looked at the formation of networks of practice and social capital through participation in an editathon. Through Allison’s work we learned that activity did not stop after the editathon event and participants did see it as an important part of their professional development. The second paper looked at the process of becoming a Wikipedia editor – and how participants felt editing was a form of knowledge activism and helped generate important discussions about how knowledge is created, curated and contested online and how Wikipedia editors can positively impact on the knowledge available to people all around the world and addressing those knowledge gaps. So we had strong evidence there was real merit in universities engaging with Wikipedia editing because of this. This made the business case once we aligned it with our information literacy and digital skills strategy.

Since then we have never looked back. As the university’s new resource, I could have been twiddling my thumbs or treated as a snake oil salesman but I’ve never been busier. While academia and Wikipedia have something of a chequered history*, as soon as we started discussing the university taking an informed approach to Wikipedia and knowledge sharing, we found we had a lot to talk about.

And that’s what Wikipedia is about – making connections, wiki-linking from one subject to another, disappearing down the rabbit hole of knowledge. And that’s what the residency has been about, delivering workshops and creating resources which allow colleagues across the whole university to see the connections between their work and the work of the Wikimedia projects. As such we have now created a network of Open Knowledge nodes. We find that when we work with a colleague in one discipline this can often lead to further collaborations and other colleagues being brought in and other disciplines. The number of connections and positive quality interactions that a collaboration with Wikimedia affords makes, I think, working in this space finding areas of mutual benefit makes this the most exciting in academia right now, because it is so emergent but it has so much potential to make a really “significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to the world”.

I’m supported on all sides by a growing number of people all passionate for the sharing of Open Knowledge. There’s our IT Director Melissa, and Anne-Marie her deputy. Our Open Education team, our digital curator, our academic support librarians. Our course leaders from year one in Translation studies, World Christianity and Reproductive Biology. The team at Wikimedia UK, course leaders from year two. Course leaders in Digital Sociology, Reproductive Biology, Anthropology, English Literature, Design Informatics, Data Science for Design. A growing number of Wikimedians in Residence. And, latterly, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was tweeting his support of Wikimedia UK recently too.

So “if you build it they will come”.

And it grows over time.

Timelines of engagement

Of the in-curriculum work we have done – all of these courses have been repeated because of the positive reactions of staff and students. And we’re adding to these with workshops in Digital Sociology MSc, Global Health MSc, Data Science for Design MSc. We’re also now discussing which year group we should work with in the Law school – postgraduate, undergraduate, or both – because supporting digital research skills and the ability to communicate their scholarship an accessible way is absolutely something we as a university should be looking to do.

By way of example of our work with students , Reproductive Biology Hons. student, Áine Kavanagh scrupulously researched an article on one of the most serious and most deadly forms of ovarian cancer, backing up her work with over sixty references and creating her own openly-licensed diagram in Photoshop to help illustrate the article. The artice has now been viewed over 40,000 times since 2016, addressing a serious knowledge gap with scholarly research. Áine benefited from the practice academically and she enjoyed doing it personally. Because her scholarship lasted beyond the assignment and did something for the common good. Lots of the students see that as the main benefit of engaging with Wikipedia and are enthusiastic to help because of this.

The reason being: “Search is the way we live now”.

Google and Wikipedia have a symbiotic relationship where they depend on one another. Google is the #1 search engine and Wikipedia is the go-to information site, powering Google’s Knowledge Graph. So because Wikipedia pages are given a high ranking by Google’s algorithm, there is real agency to Wikipedia editing which our editors find inspiring. They become an activist for knowledge.

And it’s never been easier to contribute because of the new Visual Editor interface and all the little fun things you can do to add citations, images, links and more – while it’s also never been harder to vandalise because of the increased checks & balances put in place.

So there is lots to talk about in terms of Wikimedia in education… but I’ll let our students and staff speak to this and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

* Everything about Wikipedia is relentlessly transparent so here is its ‘warts & all’ history:

Danah Boyd also wrote some articles back in 2005 on academia & wikipedia which make for interesting reading… if for nothing other than Jimmy Wales’s ‘Wikipedia as steakhouse’ analogy which deserves to be read:

Danah also wrote an article entitled Did Media Literacy backfire? last year which has a very pertinent point to the discussion of Wikipedia in academic contexts:

“Too many students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.”

How useful has  this approach been to date?