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Wikipedia as Community Service

Wikipedia as Community Service

If I were “You”: How Academics Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “the Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit”. I’ve spouted off about this a million times before, and I’m glad to see someone else finally saying it too:

This recognition of the extent to which the Wikipedia has engaged the imagination of the general public and turned it to the amateur practice of scholarship suggests what I think may prove to be the best way of incorporating it into the lives of professional academics: since the Wikipedia appears unable to serve as a route to professional advancement for intrinsic reasons, perhaps we should begin to see contributions to it by professional scholars as a different type of activity altogether—as a form of community service to be performed by academics in much the same way lawyers are often expected to give back to the public through their pro bono work. A glance at almost any discussion page on the Wikipedia will show that the Wikipedians themselves are aware of the dangers posed to the enterprise by the inclusion of fringe theories, poor research, and contributions by people with insufficient disciplinary expertise. As certified experts who work daily with the secondary and primary research required to construct good Wikipedia entries, we are in a position to contribute to the construction of individual articles in a uniquely positive way by taking the time to help clean up and provide balance to entries in our professional areas of interest. In doing so, we can both materially improve the quality of the Wikipedia and demonstrate the importance of professional scholars to a public whose hobby touches very closely on the work we are paid to do—and whose taxes, by and large, support us.

I’d like to insert a little more concern about access to information by the general public, and perhaps add just a glimmer of the serials crisis into this article, but I guess that’s for librarians to do, not academics. Though it will never cease to amaze me that academics don’t seem to realize that they give away their intellectual labour all the time to support a third party distribution system that takes money away from the universities, thus making academics the number one threat to library budgets and the number one reason why those with access to the internet but no access to university libraries can’t get a hold of scholarly works, but hey. It’s Monday morning, and this article is a start.

Via Jason.

Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about service-learning. A variety of things from all different directions have merged in my brain to force me in this direction, and that’s handy, because I’m presenting about this in about a month at WILU. The presentation there is called “Making Coursework Matter”, and had more to do with two or three specific projects and had no particular theoretical underpinning that I was aware of. I had an idea about rescuing student work from the shedder and putting out into the world, and I wanted librarianship to a leadership role in implementing that kind of project. What I was planning to present was, in essence, a call to action. I still want that, but I’ve realized lately that what I intending to propose has far deeper implications and wider-reaching possibilities, and was already rooted in some established ideas.

The basic gist of my presentation (I’m totally scooping myself here) is this: at my institution, and at most others, students have a wealth of resources available to them, and then time and requirement to process them into something new. In other parts of the world (not to mention other parts of the country), this is not the case, and rather than encourage and support assignments that work out to busywork for students, why don’t we create spaces for students to contribute their work, so that students in other places can benefit from it? When you’re creating a document to help someone else form an idea or use a theory, that citation being properly constructed matters a lot more. I have two personal experiences this year with watching student engagement rise to unbelievable levels as soon as their work matters to someone other than their instructors; I have a few ideas for how to form these kinds of assignments, and that’s what I wanted to talk about. I know others will surely have ideas of their own to share, and I’d really like to talk about the role of librarianship is archiving this kind of information and making it globally available. That’s our expertise, right?

So I already had that idea in my head (and I feel it pressing against me with a certain amount of urgency). At the same time, I’ve been doing my research on the ins and outs of Second Life. As I’ve said, I’m spending time with Second Life to get a sense of what it offers (a lot) and how we can best take advantage of it to foster more engaged learning experiences. I’ve got some ideas at the moment, but I’m still new to the space, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions just yet. There’s been way too much jumping to conclusions in Second Life by educators and librarians of all varieties, seeing the fast, immediate use of the thing before really digging in the dirt a bit to see how far it can go. Heck, we’re still in the stage where everyone thinks this kind of space is Brand! New!, which is simply not even close to the case. We’re great at getting excited about things, but there’s far more work to be done. I want to be a little bit slower about this, get to know the natives and see what it is they’re trying to accomplish, see what actually works and what doesn’t, get into the scripting, read up on the theories and the experiences of others, and try to propose something thoughtful; if you look around in there, you’ll find a lot of flashy educational spaces, but I’m not convinced they’re nearly as rich as they could be. And I’m still a newbie. Do we build a space where we provide service to students, or do we provide space for students to provide service themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense within their curriculum?

I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades. For librarians, if the work you’re doing with a class results in students getting grades for paying attention, then you’ve succeeded. This argument has never sat well with me, but as a deeply political person, with grand ideas about the human condition and the responsibility of each of us to each other, surely I’m biased. However: students at my school put on a production of The Vagina Monologues on their own, without urging or organization from the administration or the departments, and donated the entirety of their proceeds to a local women’s shelter. There were about 20 students involved, only one of them from the drama program. 20 students dedicated their time and effort to this production, and for no grades at all, because they wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the treatment and perceptions of women’s bodies and the process of war. How can I possibly sit there in the audience, watching these amazing, talented, committed women on the stage, and keep thinking that they only thing that motivates them is grades?

Last week I attended a workshop where fourth year students in an “Information Preparedness” course presented their proposed curriculum for fostering the kind of learning they felt they needed but didn’t recieve. They did a great job, and lots of interesting discussion ensued. The pieces that really stuck with me, and kept coming back at me afterward, were the parts where the talked about how they came to learn the skills we talk about when we talk about Information Literacy; not in class, not in a library instruction session, not in the process of trying to write a paper. They learned things when they were out on co-ops or internships, and where the learning of these skills mattered to someone. If our goal is to equip students with the skills they need for just these situations, should we pay attention to these kinds of results? If the purpose provides some of the engagement required to learn, should we be looking for and providing that kind of purpose?

And then this weekend, while perusing the blog of my (prolific) friend Jeremy Hunsinger, I followed his link to a post about how schools and museums aren’t about learning, they’re about making (and playing). What on earth does learning mean when someone can say something like that? Today I recieved an email from a local teacher Jason Nolan and I have been working with to do some socially-relevant coursework with high school students; he told us that his students are having such a great time with it that he has a hard time pulling them away from the project to work on other things. Everyone presumes the cool part is the technology (that’s certainly part of it). But what about the social action part? What causes and creates engagement? And how can we use that knowledge to encourage real learning?


service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

I’ve seen service-learning in action before, but it’s only now that I see how it could blend nicely with library instruction, and with my particular role as a collaborator with faculty. Service-learning generally implies a large project, but what I’m thinking now is that it could also be scaled down; why shouldn’t we propose micro serivce-learning projects that have an impact, not necessarily or only on the local community, but on the global community? Creating information sources for others, with the right citations, in order to improve the lives of people who don’t have the same level of access as we do, is a form of service-learning too. Even traditional coursework can become part of a service-learning project. The moment things became digital, we entered a world where our community can span the entire globe; maybe one way we engage students and show them the relevance of information literacy skills is by getting them on side to start making that global community a better place.

MLearn: Don’t forget about Training!

MLearn: Don’t forget about Training!

There’s a bit of a recurring theme to the presentations so far that hovers around teacher training in particular, and training in general. It started with the Keynote (which I blogged about yesterday), its head was raised again in this morning’s keynote (about the “Net Generation”) and crops up here and there in various presentations. It seems there’s a devout belief from on high that training is simply not necessary, particularly not for anyone under the age of 23.

I’ve fought this beast a million times. First: there have been legitimate studies that indicate that access to a computer doesn’t make students any smarter, or get them better grades. I think I’ve already blogged a few of those studies. A computer alone doesn’t solve anything, and even if a student knows how to play WoW (World of Warcraft), it doesn’t mean she is a technogenius. In my experience, undergraduates are not only not “digital natives” in the way that people over 30 like to think of them; they have cell phones, they have IM, but they have no idea how to find information on the internet, are floored by a new web application, aren’t comfortable playing around with something like a wiki to see how it works, and no idea why it’s not a good idea to send email from their account to the registrar’s office or two a potential employer. Technology literacy cannot be judged by a person’s gadgets; I often think these ideas are generated by people who are in awe of the toys available and find them difficult to use. Seeing that their 12 year old daughters aren’t intimidated by these gadgets, they decide that kids just Get It. It’s just natural for them, somehow.

I really wish the people who write these things would stop using their (genius!) 12 year old daughters as models and would instead ask the people who actually work with students on a regular basis. I did. I asked at UTM’s Computing Services what they thought about this idea of younger age == tech virtuosity. Their experience: just because a person is 19 years old doesn’t mean he knows how to set up his wireless, or knows how to do a windows update, or can work out how to configure his email account. Technology is a wide world of its own, and you can be extremely proficient at one part of it and be hopeless with another.

The result of this deep-seated belief that Kids are born with a USB plug in their mouths had a serious impact; my friend Minna Saulio from Finland reported in her research from South Africa that private corps provide money for computers, but no tech support; they have rooms full of computers they can’t use.

In sum: training is important!



Today I gave a presentation with Derek Williams, a History professor at UTM, at TechKnowFile, the U of T IT staff conference. Right before this started we discovered that they had booked us into a room with a class in it, so we had a last minute scramble to a new room. And then somehow between leaving home this morning and unpacking to give the presentation at 3pm I lost my video out cable, which really bums me out. I loved that cable, man. But amazingly they found me one to use for the presentation.

Anyway, all this is to say, when we started this presentation I was a little off my game, but we picked it up again pretty fast. In the end it was a lot of fun and there were lots of interesting questions afterward. Derek Williams is an amazing guy and a great instructor, and we used this tech_know_file presentation as a moment to talk about what he did with his Latin American history class this winter term. In sum: he gave his students something beyond a grade to work for. He asked his students to improve the content of Wikipedia.

You can download and listen to the presentation here: Wikis on the Move: TechKnowFile.06 [19 meg file].

Edited to add: I found my video out cable. I was on my bedroom floor. Phew.