The Wonderful World of Wikipedia

Last time I posted Elizabeth Dillon came to our university to discuss the Early Caribbean Digital Archive of which she is a co-creator. It was very enlightening to listen to her talk about creating the archive and the different plans she and her partners have for the archive in the future. It made me realize how time consuming and meticulous it is to create such a thing as an archive. New parts of the archive can only go public after much work and deliberation. While I never assumed that as soon as the idea for the archive was born the archive itself–POOF!–appeared online, it was still interesting to hear Professor Dillon’s talk. I truly respect all of the hard work that goes into creating an archive like the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. To tie it back to my final project, archives are also a type of “unfinished text”–its content and its online platform need constant revising and reworking so the user receives the best result possible.

But that’s not the only reason I’m posting tonight. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned about what I call “The Wonderful World of Wikipedia” and how Wikipedia can be and is used in a university “classroom.” (I’m putting “classroom” in quotation marks because I’m not sure if it is useful to call what I’m talking about–and what digital humanities scholars are talking about–a classroom. A classroom implies a hierarchy between the teacher and the student as well as a “traditional” way of learning. In other words, the students learn and the teachers teach; there is somewhat of a divide between them. This way of learning is also grade centered–students complete work for a specific purpose: a grade. Sometimes the grade is the only result of their work. That is to say, sometimes the grade is what the students “get” out of their assignments. But I digress…)

This week, for class, we were asked to take a look at the digital book, Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, and choose a chapter in the book to blog about (which is what I’m doing now 🙂 ).  However, before I begin I’d like to give a short preface. This week in class we’ll be discussing Digital Humanities Pedagogy and what that means for the future of higher education (and possibly education in general). In preparation for our class discussion we were asked to read a couple of works other than Digital Humanities Pedagogy. These works are: Cathy N. Davidson’s and David Theo Goldberg’s “Ten Principles for the Future of Learning” and Hybrid Pedagogy’s (Jesse Stommel’s and Sean Michael Morris’s) “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age.” Both works imply that the digital world is creating a new way of learning that is affecting students and teachers. Because our way of learning is changing, our “classrooms” have to change as well. These works outline the principles of the Digital Humanities “classroom,” of learning in the digital age. Learning should (and is starting to) happen “horizontally” (the teachers can teach and learn; the students can learn and teach). Learning also happens collaborative; learning becomes about the process rather than the result of the learning.  In the last chapter in Digital Humanities Pedagogy, “Wikipedia, Collaboration, and the Politics of Free Knowledge,” Melanie Kill posits Wikipedia as an important part of the digital age and one that can and should be used in the new “classroom” for a wide range of learning.

In “Wikipedia, Collaboration, and the Politics of Knowledge,” Melanie Kill attempts to deconstruct Wikipedia, what it is and what it entails, and how it can be used in the classroom. First and foremost, she states that Wikipedia “provides students with a range of opportunities to work as intermediaries between the disciplinary expertise they are studying, a public system of knowledge curation, and a global audience of readers” (Kill 389).  Wikipedia offers allows students to learn and participate in knowledge creation. No longer are students writing essays and papers that only a few eyes can see, but with Wikipedia, students write for multiple sets of eyes, for a global audience. They can have the opportunity to add to public knowledge. As Kill states, students move beyond working for grades to working to create social knowledge and action. The digital age, and websites like Wikipedia, open students up to a vast learning community. When they learn and share knowledge, they contribute not only to theirs and their classmates’ knowledge, but they contribute to strangers’s knowledge, too.

Wikipedia also involves an important aspect of the Digital Humanities and one that has popped up again and again in our class discussions this semester: collaboration. Kill states that collaboration is not only an essential part of being a student, but it is also becoming an essential part of being a “citizen” (Kill 390). As the “real world” is becoming more and more collaborative, students are constantly being asked to be so as well. Participating in Wikipedia in the “classroom” can prepare students for life beyond academia.

Kill also discusses Wikipedia as a new type of genre, an innovative encyclopedia of sorts. It is innovative because it is a collaborative creation. It allows its users to find information and discover the conversations between the editors of the webpage that happen “behind the scenes.”  We are all aware that we can press the “Talk Tab” on any given page which will allow us to discuss the page’s content with other users. We can also “edit” the page and view the page’s history, seeing its various edits and revisions. Kill makes an important point that correlates to the various tasks we can do on Wikipedia. A student can use Wikipedia to simply edit typos and grammar, or can edit pages, adding and revising information for others to see. Inevitably, another user will then edit our edits because that is the nature of Wikipedia. By nature, it’s open to adaptation and free use. That’s what we love about Wikipedia. But that’s also what makes it controversial.

I like Kill’s essay because it does not ignore the controversy around Wikipedia–she knows that people see Wikipedia as “too open” to revision. If anyone can edit, how can we know its information is correct? If there are no established rules to Wikipedia, how can we trust its credibility. Most importantly, why should we teach it to our students? Another way we can phrase that question is, what can it offer to our students?

Asking a student to participate in Wikipedia is not without challenges and Kill gives us some suggestions that will hopefully erase those difficulties. They are:

  • Situated Practice
  • Overt Instruction
  • Critical Framing
  • Transformed Practice

I think what’s most important about Kill’s essay is that it suggests (or rather, it tells us) that Wikipedia can and should be used for learning. It participates in collaboration, open access, and teaching and learning for all. Towards the conclusion of her essay she indicates that students may use Wikipedia to look up information, but it is rare they understand how to use it and how they can add to it. It is up to teachers to show them. Once shown and if led properly, students will learn to share in the creation and distribution of knowledge. With Wikipedia, students can gain a voice and give others a voice as well.

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll go add to Wikipedia now.

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