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Learning about online communities by becoming members of one

Working with 4th year Cornell students, I know I can expect a lot from them. In the course Online Communities students learn about how online technologies can serve as means for constructing and maintaining communities (e.g., GitHub, World of Warcraft, Couchsurfing, Reddit, PatientsLikeMe). They also learn about different aspects of online communities: roles and membership, governance, design, norms of behavior, identity, and so on. Of course, they could learn through readings, lectures, and discussions. But a better way to learn about online communities is to become members of one. So I thought – perhaps the best example of a rich and diverse community, with clear goals, norms, roles, members, interaction tools, and actual products, is Wikipedia. I therefore decided in Fall 2012 that a class project would be to write a Wikipedia article, as a vehicle for learning what this online community is all about.

I was concerned about this assignment: having only done minimal edits here and there, I do not know much about Wikipedia’s rules, standards of writing, how decisions are made, and who are the other Wikipedians and what they do. I therefore felt lucky to have received the attention of the Wikipedia Education Program, who assigned our class a Campus Ambassador (Gabriel Mugar) and an Online Ambassador (Piotr Konieczny), who both engaged with me and students offline and online about this class project.

We started with students creating user accounts, playing with sandboxes to get their feet wet with Wikipedia editing, and teaming in three member groups for writing an article together. Then they had to choose a topic for their article. I gave students complete freedom in choosing what article to write, since this exercise was mostly about the process of working on the article, not the content per-se.  Our Campus Ambassador encouraged students to choose topics for which they can find at least 5 reliable sources to start with. I also encouraged students not to choose as topics local businesses and organizations that might not merit an encyclopedic article (although some students ignored this advice).  Many chose interesting topics, such as Incentive-Centered Design, Brick Lane Market, Women’s Oversized Fashion in the United States 1920s-2000s, and Sherlock Holmes: The Musical.

Through a page that was constructed under their user account page, students submitted an article proposal in which they described and justified the topic they had chosen, proposed the content and structure of the article, explained how the topic is situated in the Wikipedia realm (i.e., a relevant WikiProject and other articles linked to/from this article), and listed their sources.  Students in the class gave each other feedback about these proposals on the talk page, providing them with ideas for additional sources, images to use, or content and structural changes.  Then the writing of the articles began. Most of the work was done in their sandoxes, only later moving them to a “real” Wikipedia article page. Students had to be sure that their writing adheres to Wikipedia’s standards, making all claims verifiable by citing proper sources and using the talk page to discuss anything that went into and out of the article.  They were also encouraged to actively connect to other Wikipedians – our Online Ambassador or active Wikipedians in the WikiProject that is related to their article or that are involved in related articles.  For example, one group interacted with another individual on licensing images they were using in their article.  Toward the end of the process, students took the articles out of their sandboxes and turned them into “real” Wikipedia articles. This came with a lot of concern that pages will be immediately deleted.  To our surprise, pages were not “speedy-deleted”, and many students got other Wikipedians to pay attention to their articles and help them with structure, standards, images, etc.

This assignment was graded on the following aspects: (1) high quality content based on substantial sources; (2) correct formatting and structure, images and sideboxes, and links to/from other articles; (3) engaging in discussion with other Wikipedians in the talk page; (4) showing gradual evolution of article through the article’s history; and (5) demonstrating reflective thoughts about the experience and community participation in a later-submitted individual reflection paper.

This experience was definitely a success. Students learned about the community and how it works, interacted with others directly or indirectly, and learned what it means to be a member of the Wikipedia community. They discovered barriers of participation and contribution to articles, and that the commonly used phrase “anyone can write anything on Wikipedia” was incorrect – it takes a lot to write a Wikipedia article. For example, one group was surprised to find a lot of “citation needed” pop up in their article, and they worked hard to fix those arguments.  Students were excited that something they had written for a class assignment turned into meaningful contribution to the most expansive knowledge repository in the world and that Googling their topic brought up the article they have written. Many of the articles are still up, and some have been expanded and edited by other Wikipedians since this exercise was concluded.

Unfortunately, most articles that were written in this 5-week class project are still at a low quality level according to Wikipedia’s standards of article development, and this might be what I work on next time I offer the class – instead of writing an article from scratch or editing a stub-level article, increase the quality of a start-level article to B- or A-level.  I might have to practice this myself before I assign this, and I will definitely rely on help from the Wikipedia community; after all, it is an online community, and this is what this class is all about.

Gilly Leshed is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University.  She teaches courses about the social, technical, and design aspects of information and communication technologies, with topics such as social media, mobile devices, and new ways of collaborating, playing, and connecting with others. 

One Response to “Learning about online communities by becoming members of one”

  1. If I may be so bold as to give my opinion, I find this an amazing assignment. It is refreshing to read of an educational enterprise in which, so it seems, the educator is learning as much as the students are. I was surprised to read that your students were able to find such relevant articles that did not exist yet. Your idea of creating a new assignment consisting of improving low-class levels to high-quality ones sounds very apt. Good luck!