Addressing the challenges of digital and information literacy, digital scholarship and open knowledge at the University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is the first university in the UK to appoint a university-wide Wikimedian in Residence as part of its institutional strategy to develop information and digital literacy skills for staff and students, and contribute to the creation and dissemination of open knowledge.
The role of the Wikimedian in Residence is to work with course teams and students across the University, to demonstrate how learning to contribute to Wikipedia can enhance staff and students’ understanding of how knowledge is constructed, curated and contested online. Editing Wikipedia also provides valuable opportunities for students to develop their digital research and communication skills, and enables them to make a lasting contribution to the global pool of open knowledge.
The residency also focuses on redressing the gender balance of Wikipedia articles and has been hugely successful in encouraging more women to become Wikipedia editors.
A growing number of courses at undergraduate and Masters level have successfully incorporated Wikipedia editing activities in the curriculum, and student societies have also developed their own Wikipedia projects. The University is also engaging with Wikipedia’s newest sister project, Wikidata, in the context of the growing importance of data literacy and open data initiatives.
A number of other UK universities are learning from the Edinburgh experience, and are developing their own projects with Wikimedia UK, the UK chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation.
A strategy for digital and information literacy
Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which supports a range of open knowledge projects, of which Wikipedia is the best known. Wikimedia UK fosters engagement with these projects through the placement of Wikimedians in Residence within institutions in the education and cultural sectors.
Having seen the potential of the Wikimedian in Residence model, Melissa Highton, Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services at the University of Edinburgh, identified how such a placement could help improve information literacy and digital skills at the University.
An initial Wikipedia editathon, a facilitated event that brings people together to edit the encyclopaedia, was held at the University in 2015, on the topic of women, science and Scottish history. This editathon was independently evaluated by Professor Alison Littlejohn of the Open University, in order to establish its impact and explore the value of collaboration with Wikimedia UK. Professor Littlejohn found that both formal and informal learning and knowledge creation took place at the editathon. In two research papers,[i],[ii]she analysed the formation of networks of practice and social capital through participation in editathons, with sufficient momentum generated to sustain engagement after the event itself, and participants valuing it as an important part of their professional development. She also found that, in becoming an active Wikipedia editor, participants engaged in important discussions about how knowledge is created, curated and contested online, and the positive impact that Wikipedia can have in sharing knowledge and addressing knowledge gaps.
As a research-based institution, this evidence of the benefits of engaging with Wikipedia helped to make the business case for integrating Wikipedia editing as part of the University of Edinburgh’s information literacy and digital skills strategy. The following year, the University appointed a new Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew. This was the first residency in the UK with a remit to work right across a university, rather than within a specific area such as a library. Based in the Digital Skills team within the University’s Information Services Group, the Wikimedian in Residence provides a centrally supported service accessible to all staff across the institution. Initially a one-year, part-time appointment, the residency focused on helping colleagues to make connections between their teaching and research and the Wikimedia projects, in order to explore areas of mutual benefit. As a result of the positive response to this service, the Wikimedian in Residence has since become a full-time permanent post.
In addition to providing educational opportunities, the residency supports a number of key institutional missions, including open knowledge and open science; the Scottish Government initiative on creating a data literate workforce; commitments on gender equality including the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter; and public and community engagement. The residency provides opportunities for the University to expand its civic mission, through new forms of collaboration with city-wide and Scottish national bodies.
Wikimedia in the Curriculum
Wikipedia is integrated into the curriculum at the University of Edinburgh by engaging students in the creation of original Wikipedia articles, on topics that are not currently covered by the encyclopaedia. These included articles of particular relevance to Scotland, e.g. Scottish women in STEM, often created in collaboration with local external partners, and those of more general interest. Students are provided with training on how to edit Wikipedia and how to undertake relevant research, enabling them to write informed articles that are fully and accurately referenced. Writing articles that will be publicly accessible and live on after the end of their assignment has proved to be highly motivating for students, and provides an incentive for them to think more deeply about their research. It encourages them to ensure they are synthesising all the reliable information available, and to think about how they can communicate their scholarship to a general audience. Students can see that their contribution will benefit the huge audience that consults Wikipedia, plugging gaps in coverage, and bringing to light hidden histories, significant figures, and important concepts and ideas. This makes for a valuable and inspiring teaching and learning experience, that enhances the digital literacy, research and communication skills of both staff and students.
Wikimedia curriculum assignments supported by the Wikimedian in Residence have now been incorporated into a number of different disciplines including:
- Reproductive Biology Honours
- Translation Studies MSc
- World Christianity MSc
- Online History MSc
- Data Science for Design MSc
- Global Health Masters courses
- Intellectual Humility MOOC
- Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice.
Discussions are also underway to incorporate Wikipedia editing into the curriculum for postgraduate and undergraduate students at the School of Law, and into Masters courses in Digital Society, Psychology in Action, and Digital Education.
Supporting Equality and Diversity
Another significant remit of the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedia residency has been to support the institution’s commitment to Athena SWAN. Many of the editathons facilitated by the Wikimedian in Residence focus on addressing the under-representation of women on Wikipedia and encouraging more women to become editors. A 2011 surveyshowed that around 90% of English language Wikipedia editors were male. Since then Wikimedia has made a concerted effort to improve the gender diversity of its community, however women editors are still a minority. In contrast, 69% of participants at University of Edinburgh editathons are women.
These events also help to address the fact that only 17.73% of English Wikipedia biographies are about notable women. To help combat this systemic bias, a range of editathons have focused on women in science and Scottish history, history of medicine, history of veterinary medicine, history of nursing, women in espionage, women and religion, art and feminism, women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), reproductive biology, Gothic literature, and celebrations of Ada Lovelace Day.
Promoting Data Literacy with Wikidata
In line with new open data initiatives supported by government and research councils, there has been growing interest in working other Wikimedia projects such as Wikibooks and Wikidata. The University of Edinburgh has recently been awarded additional public funding to lead the development of a data-literate workforce of the future over the next ten years, equipping them with the data skills necessary to meet the needs of Scotland’s growing digital economy, and helping the city of Edinburgh to become an international centre for data-driven innovation. In order to support this initiative, the University has been exploring the introduction of Wikidata activities in the curriculum.
This provides students with an opportunity to:
- Engage with issues of data completeness, data processing and analysis, and data ethics.
- Learn to make practical use of a large range of tools and data visualisation techniques.
- Work with linked open data on the semantic web, across disciplines ranging from science to digital humanities and cultural heritage.
Initial curriculum activities have focused on converting existing datasets from the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft (1563–1736) database into structured, machine-readable open data and adding it to Wikidata. This data is then enriched by linking it with other complementary datasets in Wikidata to help build up a semantic open web of knowledge.
Student reaction: formal and informal learning
“It’s a really good exercise in critical thinking … It’s a motivating thing to do to use the knowledge you’ve learnt, to see how it is relevant to the real world and to contribute … Knowing people are finding the article useful is really gratifying.” – University of Edinburgh Reproductive Biology student, Áine Kavanagh, reflecting on a Wikipedia editing exercise
The vast majority of students have reacted extremely positively to engaging with Wikimedia, seeing it as enjoyable and with the added reward of contributing to the common good. Most students quickly become technically adept at using the new Wikipedia Visual Editor interface, which they described as making editing ‘super easy’, ‘fun’, ‘really intuitive’ and ‘addictive as hell’. A few felt that Wikipedia editing wasn’t for them, but they too benefited from greater understanding of how knowledge is constructed online, and are now well placed to make informed choices about whether or not to actively contribute to its creation in the future.
Reproductive Biology students who took part in an assignment writing Wikipedia articles for previously unpublished medical terms found it provided valuable training in communicating scientific ideas to a lay audience, something they will have to do in their professional careers. One student wrote an article on high-grade serous carcinoma, one of the most serious and deadly forms of ovarian cancer; this addressed a significant knowledge gap on the encyclopaedia using high-quality scholarly research communicated in non-specialist terms. The high-grade serous carcinoma article, which has now been viewed over 50,000 times, represents a perceptible and lasting contribution to the common good. At the same time, the article has contributed to the student’s professional development, and become a source of lasting satisfaction for them.
The Wikimedia residency has also had a significant impact on students outwith the curriculum. Several student societies, including History, Women in STEM, Law and Technology, Translation, and International Development, have seen the potential for Wikipedia editing to enhance their activities, and have approached the Wikimedian in Residence for help, support and training. The student History Society held an editathon as part of its programme of activities for Black History Month, adding entries for notable black women not previously represented on Wikipedia. A key motivator for History Society students was contributing to public understanding of history by improving the coverage of under-represented areas such as social history, women’s history, the history of people of colour, and queer history.
Meanwhile the Law and Technology Society ran a Wikipedia editathon focused on improving coverage of technology law and intellectual property rights. The success of this editathon led to discussions with course leaders at the School of Law, initiated by students themselves, about including Wikipedia editing in the course curriculum as a collaborative exercise involving undergraduate and postgraduate students researching and editing topics related to Scottish law for a lay audience.
Digital skills development
Digital skills that the collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Wikimedia UK has helped to develop include:
- Critical information literacy
- Digital literacy
- Academic writing and referencing
- Critical thinking
- Literature review
- Writing for different audiences
- Research skills
- Communication skills
- Community building
- Online citizenship
Course leaders experience
Course leaders who have engaged with the University’s Wikipedia in the Curriculum initiatives have found the exercise to be popular with students and successful in achieving desired learning outcomes. Students learn valuable research and communication skills that contribute to their learning and help prepare them for future careers. In addition, they are better able to evaluate the quality of Wikipedia articles and the veracity of information they encounter online.
Wikipedia assignments are not presented as an additional overhead for already time-poor course leaders, but rather as an approach that can be used to enhance learning outcomes where they are not being meaningfully achieved by existing course elements. This has been an important factor in encouraging uptake. For example, the MSc in World Christianity, introduced a successful Wikipedia assignment in place of an existing oral assessment.
Several courses have now run Wikipedia assignments over successive years and the number of departments involved is expanding, in line with the evolution of course planning, and as awareness of the opportunities grows. For academic staff, in addition to the teaching and learning benefits, engaging with Wikimedia has provided useful insight into the editorial process of how Wikipedia pages are created, and information and knowledge is constructed online.
Sustainability and capacity for expansion has been built into the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedia residency since its inception. By focusing on digital skills development and employing a ‘train the trainers’ approach, the Wikimedian in Residence has been able train a large number of staff and students to support Wikipedia editathons and course assignments. Staff, including learning technologists, digital skills trainers, academic support librarians, digital curators, open educational resource advisors, and deputy directors of IT are now able to lead training across the University.
The Wikimedian in Residence has also developed and curated a wide range of training resources, including:
- A lesson plan for how to lead a Wikipedia editing workshop, available to download under open licence from TES (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/how-to-conduct-wikipedia-editing-training-11548391).
- Over 250 open licensed educational videos and tutorials
- A growing number of self-directed online tutorials using easy to navigate WordPress SPLOT sites.
The residency is helping the University of Edinburgh to expand and enhance its civic mission, with many opportunities for collaboration with city-wide and Scottish national bodies arising both inside or outside the curriculum. In order to support growing engagement with Wikipedia in Scotland, Wikimedia UK recruited a Scotland Programme Co-ordinator in April 2018. Other Scottish institutions that have employed Wikimedians in Residence include the National Library of Scotland, the Scottish Library & Information Council, Museums Galleries Scotland and, most recently, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Wales, meanwhile, has a permanent National Wikimedian based at the National Library of Wales.
Lessons learned and wider impact
With interest increasing among academic staff and course leaders in exploring how Wikimedia can be incorporated into their curricula, and appreciation growing of the opportunities Wikipedia offers to engage with the creation and dissemination of open knowledge, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedia residency, has successfully demonstrated that engaging with Wikipedia and its sister projects can enhance teaching and learning and benefit the institution’s civic mission.
The residency has also shown how the process of editing Wikimedia can be demystified and made accessible and enjoyable for students through a range of activities and events that provide a variety of opportunities for collaboration and sharing good practice, with scaffolded support and training. Activities such as ‘train the trainer’ workshops expand understanding of how to engage with Wikipedia and support colleagues and students to become editors.
Reaction to the residency has been positive among both staff and students, and has increased understanding of the important role Wikipedia, and increasingly Wikidata, can play in Higher Education and in knowledge creation and sharing more generally.
In order to share their expertise, the Wikimedian in Residence is now developing open educational resources for staff and students that explain quickly and easily how and why to engage with Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. Wikipedia training is now embedded in University’s Digital Skills training programme, with introductory ‘How to get started editing Wikipedia’ workshops led by staff within the Digital Skills team. This approach fosters greater sustainability in the longer term, and enables the Wikimedian in Residence to deliver more specialised workshops including:
- Teaching with Wikipedia
- Introduction to open data with Wikidata
- Introduction to Wikisource: The digital hyperlibrary
- Sharing research on Wikipedia and Wikidata
- Wiki games: Learning through play
- Histropedia: The timeline of everything.
The success of the University of Edinburgh residency has helped Wikimedia UK to build new collaborations with education institutions across the UK, and has led the chapter to develop its first Wikipedia in the Classroom publication. This forthcoming booklet of UK case studies will help demonstrate how universities can engage meaningfully with Wikimedia projects, to support their institutional missions and enhance learners’ digital skills. Happily, a growing number of universities across the UK have sought to learn from the Edinburgh experience and have begun exploring their own Wikipedia projects with Wikimedia UK.
Find out more
Contact: Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Edinburgh.
Rehm A, Littlejohn A and Rienties B (2017). Does a formal wiki event contribute to the formation of a network of practice? A social capital perspective on the potential for informal learning. Interactive Learning Environments, 26 (3). tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10494820.2017.1324495
Wikipedia editors study: results from the editor survey, April 2011. wikimedia.org. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Editor_Survey_Report_-_April_2011.pdf
Figure as of 18 February 2019, WikiProject Women In Red, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women_in_Red
This case study was edited by Lorna M. Campbell, University of Edinburgh, from a case study produced by Jisc in November 2018. Education consultancy Sero HE was commissioned by Jisc to interview Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence at the University.
CC BY SA, Jisc, Sero HE, and the University of Edinburgh.