Wikipedia and university beyond the classroom

In August 2011, I offered a course called Wikipedia in Roman History for an undergraduate History course at UNIRIO, Brazil. This was the first experiment in teaching with Wikipedia supported by the Wikipedia Education Program in Brazil. Now the program is well established and new courses are added each term, all of them incorporating graded assignments with Wikipedia though a variety of university courses.

This year I thought of something different. I realized that assignments with grades were not the only thing we could do. The university can act as a starting point to present students – or, for that matter, anyone – with a deeper view of what Wikipedia is, what it can do, its restrictions and possibilities for sharing knowledge (I like to call it “wiki-literacy”). This has been done before, by teams of volunteers all over the world, with or without Wikimedia Foundation support. But universities have as one of their three branches of action something we call “extension,” or activities that connect academia with society as a whole (the other branches are, naturally, teaching and research). So, isn’t working with Wikipedia totally fitting with the definition of extension?

Participants in the workshop at UNIRIO.

On October 16, together with Campus Ambassador OTAVIO1981, I offered a 4-hour workshop for students during the UNIRIO Extension Week. Twelve people participated, including students from other universities as well. We introduced the 5 pillars, with discussion on the meaning and use of encyclopedias, reliability, authorship, copyrights and collaborative writing, all through examples taken from Wikipedia sections, navigation, and good and bad articles.

With the presentation of the last two pillars, the students started editing: they created their userpages; they learned how to insert userboxes (this pre-social network device motivates them a lot); and they learned how to send messages through each other’s talk pages. We had previously selected five small articles from the English Wikipedia that were not available in Portuguese, translated the text and distributed them to the students. It was important that the articles were about topics of the lecturer’s knowledge, so additional information could be readily supplied.

The students then learned some basic formatting, such as how to insert internal and external links, references, images and categories. Choosing the best images was an important activity on itself. At the end of the workshop, they all had their shiny new (and correct) articles to show everyone. Furthermore, the workshop counted as additional working hours for their graduating requirements, which is important and motivational for them as well.

Editing workshops are not new. Nowadays, neither is teaching with Wikipedia. This packed format, however, opened some new possibilities. The ultimate goal here was not training new editors, or even improving Wikipedia content. These are consequences, because we must not forget that editing is essentially a voluntary act. These students may never edit again, but they will have become better users, more conscientious about processing and even creating information. This is a pressing necessity for today, and on Wikipedia, wiki-literacy is one of the best possible tools to achieve that.

Juliana Bastos Marques is User:Domusaurea.

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