Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Power of Reuse: Wikipedia in Action

Summary of a panel at the Hewlette Grantees' Conference. Errors are again my own.

Pete Forsyth, Wiki Strategies
(See also his blog post with resources for this panel at )

In the past we've been saying that it's important to the field of OER to improve content. But really, it's about teaching and learning. So what is it about Wikipedia that is an opportunity for learning?

Jeanette Lee, the Cambridge School of Weston

We are integrating technology in the classroom, and students are always asking whether they can use Wikipedia. We have a handout we created on how to use Wikipedia. One of the students wanted to use the message box from an article, and we had a conversation about how to use it. So, students are using Wikipedia and the question is how to integrate it.

Amin Azzam, UCSF

The peer review process has sort of a stranglehold on academic advancement, but they were interested in partnering with Wikipedia such that if an author updated an article it might be counted as a publication. The meeting on this was just yesterday.

The medical students all go to Wikipedia first when they go o look something up, because it's written in a way they can understand, and then they go to a more reliable source. So then someone suggested that students could contribute to Wikipedia.

Dan Cook, Wiki Strategies

I'm a voracious consumer of Wikipedia. My work is both as a journalist and as a consultant. This week for example there was the experience of going from an article being marked for deletion to the potential removal of the banner altogether. I have these experiences pretty much on a daily basis.

I was part of the 'new journalism' when it was coined in the 80s. Secret sources and fights with the editors and all that. But now Wikipedia is the new journalism of today; leave your ego at the door, don;t use any modifiers, we don't want any spin. But it's a hard place for traditional journalists to work; we have to unlearn everything we learned about journalism.


I compare Wikipedia articles to an expository essay, which students have to learn. So getting them to understand that Wikipedia articles have structure, they have references, etc. So the idea is making the use of Wikipedia in academia transparent. People are using it, they're just using it quietly. It was about how to get a language to move between Wikipedia articles and the more traditional essay.

A funny statistic from Pew, from February: 90 percent of AP and National Writing teachers find information online for their classes; 90 percent use Google, 87% use Wikipedia, but they discourage their students from using it. So there is this contradiction. So we need to get out in front and deal with this contradiction. We need a PR campaign or something, so people know it is legitimate to use in their classrooms.

Amin: Yes, 87-93% of medical students admits to using it.

Dan: If you could just get them to take the next step and look at their sources!

Jeanette: yes, that's what we want them to do, it's a great skill to develop.

Amin: there's roughly 26K articles in the medical field, but a lot of them have room for improvement. One thing wwith my students is they're in the final year of med school, so they can contribute, but they haven't lost the ability to speak English yet.

Pete: the articles I contributed to most were on topics I was learning about. Also, Amin mentioned 'English Wikipedia'. This points to a way where Wikipedia and OER have a lost of aspirations in common. (Reads from letter mourning the death of Babu Gi, from Kerala, and commemorating his contributions).

Amin: discusses the translation of medical articles into other languages. Wikipedia has an initiative called 'Data Zero' to give access to Wikipedia content for free. To me this is a no-brainer. (See )

Jeanette: opportunities for OER to learn from Wikipedia - I don't have students contribute to Wikipedia, but I do have students use materials from Wikipedia and OER Commons - I do hand over a lot of content to students, and then they create the content that everyone uses. I give them the option: either I lecture, or you do this project. Usually they choose the project. And they know that everybody will be using the material for understanding the text. I view Wikipedia as part of the OER community, and it's a way for them to use Wikipedia even if they can't contribute (they're just high school students, I would have too many permissions I have to fill out).

Amin: there's a source of med information by students for students called 'Up To Date', it's called 'crack for medical students', but it's subscription, and they don't realize how much the school has to pay.

Pete: where do students become ready to contribute to Wikipedia?

Jeanette: I think definitely there are high school students ready for that.

Amin: it's a question of what fraction of school work is contributing. For example in my class they have peer review. They need this support.

Jeanette: some projects are individual and some are group. Anything that's a presentation for the class, they grade it, I don't grade it.

Pete: I see this as a new journalism and I would like to see training begin in the classroom, so they don't get the bad habits I got. When will students work on Wikipedia?

Jeanette: there are concerns about privacy, that's the barrier. I do think it would be a hard sell for some districts. Showing districts how they can use Wikipedia would be much easier.

Amin: my students had to create user names, so we could track their contribution. They began with non-descriptive user names, but eventually made it clear they were future doctors.

Pete: there is this culture of anonymity in Wikipedia. It's a major part of the ethos. But then there's the potential for conflict of interest; we don't want the chief of Enron writing the article.

Dan: why did reporters have bylines? So they could be held accountable. Journalists especially need to have user names that are transparent and they should describe themselves in a transparent way. There needs to be a high level there. When I search to see if an article is credible, I don't like seeing that the author is anonymous. Wikipedians will have to grapple with this.

Amin: the concept of anonymity almost doesn't exist any more. They have their Facebook pages, they scrub them clean before going into med school.

Dan: I think it's people in my generation, they don't want to give up their social security numbers, etc.

Jeanette: developing people who are comfortable as Wikipedia users, as they go into college, they're used to working in that kind of environment.

Amin: my future students will be already equipped knowing how to be contributors.

Q: there are now things where you can remix in the OER space; but in schools there is this top-down ethic about who is eligible to do that (it has to be curriculum specialists, etc).

Amin: I consider the medical librarian an equal partner in the course, and the Wikipedia contributors to be equal partners. There's no way for any of us top be experts in everything. It takes a village.

Pete: Wikipedia and OER are characterozed by people coming together in ways that were never anticipated, and saying to previous generations, we're not waiting around for you any more. We want to address content gaps. Etc. The sort of thing that doesn't work well in that crowd-sourced way. Eg. the small number of contributions by women.

Q. Pete said to me, the first thing they do after you tell them about OER, they go to Google and search for it, and find the article on Wikipedia. Do you care about what they're reading? Do you feel this is your responsibility? What ought we be doing in this community?

Pete: it's not an easy process, it doesn't have easy boundaries, you have to decide what's important for yourself, and you have to think about how much you can get in, how to work with other people.

Amin: Wikipedia is not a democracy, it's a do-ocracy.

Q: it seems to be impermanent, in the beginning, anything we thought was of value was not surviving. But the value is where you should be participating. It does compel participation. We made a lot of mistakes, but most of our articles are surviving now; it's about participating in the community. Our students talk about 'surviving the Wikipedia process'. But that's the strength of Wikipedia.

Pete: we see this dynamic a lot. People contribute an article and it's highly imperfect, just what was in the newspaper. And then a few years later an expert comes along, and says there's all these errors. And I say to them, "when were you going to do this?" When would you write the article, without having seen all the errors.

Dan: I tell people, "go to the talk pages". That's where you can see the process at work.

Q: does it make sense to have a Wikimedian-in-residence in OER?

Amin: Brillian idea.

Jeanette: I totally agree with that. And Wikipedia has done a good job partnering with universities. Such a person could encourage partnering with districts.

Q: question was more whether it would conflict with the Wiki education foundation?

Pete: no it would not at all. I know most of those people, I think there would be delight.


  1. Pete Forsyth: RT @Downes: The Power of Reuse: Wikipedia in Action - summary of panel at #OER2015 -…

  2. Pete Forsyth: @Downes yes. Would be worthy as independent effort, but wish the formal Wikimedia name was not associated with it, for exactly that reason.

  3. Johanna Berg: RT @Downes: The Power of Reuse: Wikipedia in Action - summary of panel at #OER2015 -…

  4. Wikipedia is getting stronger. It serves as 'pre-knowledge' for the majority of students (and not only students). A kind of buffer zone that has to be visited before the actual search for the answers :)


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