[Guest post] Wikipedia & Local History: a case study by Conny Reichling

wikipedia-logo2On February 7, 2013 an UGR Symposium on eLearning took place at the University of Luxembourg at Campus Walferdange. Bob Reuter invited Agnès Prüm (about Moodle), Benoît Majerus (about Twitter) and me to talk about our eLearning experiences in the classroom.

During the summer semester 2011 Sonja Kmec and I animated a seminar using Wikipedia as a tool to work on local history. I presented our experiences at the eLearning colloquium as a case study on “Using Wikipedia as a tool in local history”.

One of the objectives of the seminar was to confront the toolbox (methods of historical analysis and ways of dissemination) of a historian with the possibilities given by the Web 2.0. Compared to the tools a historian would traditionally use, the Web 2.0 blurs the line between author and reader. Everyone can become an author on the Web 2.0 if he or she wishes. Knowledge is travelling faster and is somewhat democratized, providing there is no censorship and there is Internet access. Students were thus encouraged not simply to consume historical texts, but to participate themselves in the production of knowledge. Another purpose of using Wikipedia as a tool for feedback on existing literature and generation of new knowledge was to consolidate the presence of local history on the Internet.

We chose Wikipedia for its dynamic features (as opposed to a blog or a journal) and for its democratic quality control (see TED talk by Jimmy Wales). Students were asked to create or edit a Wikipedia encyclopedia entry about Luxembourgian local history and benefit from the comments added and alterations made to their article in order to complete or correct their final work, which consisted in a traditional scientific essay.

In the course of this experiment with new transmedial methods, Wikipedia became the link between grey literature of difficult access and the Web 2.0 providing information on as good as every subject. Although, the general malaise regarding the use of Wikipedia in an academic environment is still very present in comments made by our students in the anonymous evaluation of your course, such as “I wouldn’t want my work published somewhere else than wiki – meaning a serious webpage” or “Je trouve que le travail sur wikipédia [n’] est absolument pas nécessaire, surtout parce que les profs nous ont interdit d’utiliser ce site”.

Because historiography on Luxembourg – like most local history – is mostly done by laymen and therefore the output consists mainly of so-called grey literature, Sonja and I chose to involve local historians in this project from the start and invited them to attend the seminar by distributing flyers. We recruited 32 participants (13 auditeurs libres and 19 ‘regular’ history students). Although these numbers appeared to be nicely balanced, the students felt somehow threatened by the (mostly) elderly people attending and actively contributing to the seminar. This is very clear from the anonymous evaluation at the end of the term, as the following quotes show: “Zu viele auditeurs libres!!” and “Je pense que le mixe entre étudiants jeunes et séniors était difficile dans ce cours, en particulier à cause du travail sur les ordinateurs.” While some students were obviously more computer literate that most auditeurs libres, this was not the case for all students. While the attending local historians had no qualms about asking for IT advice during class, students did not ask questions during the seminar, but preferred to send emails as to the proper use of Wikipedia afterwards. This may be linked to peer pressure, as their need for help would discriminate them from their own age group or it may be related to their refusal to give up and wish to experiment some more after class.

The participants were to study a geographical site in Luxemburg of their choice and write a few small encyclopedic entries, a bibliography and a scientific paper as well as to discuss their research methods in an oral presentation during the seminar. In order to motivate the students a little bit more, we offered the possibility to publish the best papers – with the author’s name – on a homepage dedicated to this seminar. 5 out of 32 papers met the criteria for publishing, but only two accepted to be published online.

One side product of the seminar consists in the confrontation blurring between historical facts such as learned by the students and the memories (Erinnerung und Gedächtnis) recounted by the older people attending the class. This lead to a more critical understanding of Oral History and written sources, the authority of which were increasingly questioned. Thus we’ve added a session about Oral History and its methods and pitfalls.

Despite the fact that students evidently use Wikipedia very commonly as a source for their work at the university, they are very reluctant when it comes to actually working with Wikipedia. We also noticed that the administrators of Wikipedia are very active and very fast in moderation contributions. The students were free to work on Wikipedia in French, German, English and Luxemburgish, knowing that the Luxembourgian Wikipedians knew about this project and the moderators weren’t quite as severe as on the French Wikipedia for instance where articles not meeting the Wikipedia guidelines would be removed without any warning. On the Luxembourgish Wikipedia, the moderators monitored the entries made by the students and would intervene via comment when things had to be modified.

Most of their critics regarding the students’ Wikipedia contributions concerned the lack of respect of the encyclopedic writing style. Most of the students did indeed copy-paste their scientific papers into the Wikipedia entry without using the proper posting guidelines. This resulted sometimes in heavy editing by more seasoned Wikipedians.

None of the participants was a Wikipedia contributor before the seminar; most remain reluctant towards the active use of Wikipedia. Only a few auditeurs libres and students are still active Wikipedians one year after the seminar took place.

Another idea worth keeping in mind for the years to come is to work closer with the researchers from educational sciences (Bob Reuter) and pick up on their offer to see the seminar scientifically through combining the teaching process with the learning process more thoroughly.

Conny Reichling (on twitter @connyreichling)


6 thoughts on “[Guest post] Wikipedia & Local History: a case study by Conny Reichling”

  1. Dear Gregory Kohs,
    Dear Eric Barbour,

    Thank you very much for your comments.

    What I meant – and please correct me if I am wrong – by democratic control in Wikipedia is that the community is in charge of proofreading and corrections as well as deleting unnecessary / misplaced entries. I must admit that choosing a Wales talk as a reference is rather clumsy and not really scientific, but it was the only tangible source I found in the time I had given myself to write this entry. I would be happy to get a hand on better sources about wiki and I will not miss to look into the Minnesota case study and come back on your offer Eric Barbour.

    I would like to add that we’ve mostly worked on the Luxembourgian, French an German Wikipedia and we didn’t cross any real “editing wars” or other conflicts so far. The only real conflicts we’ve encountered in this seminar, which also is the initial subject of this entry, was how to deal with the reluctance of the students to use Wikipedia actively and that still remains the main issue to solve this year.

    1. Conny, thank you for taking the time to respond, but I am afraid that you still have a couple of flaws in your perspective on Wikipedia. At the same time, you make a very good point — that your work on the Luxembourgian, French and German language editions of Wikipedia probably has not exposed you to the rabble that currently lord over the English language version. The English Wikipedia was the first, and it is the one most closely following in the governance model influenced by Jimmy Wales. “A fish rots from the head down”, as they say.

      That said, I would like to point out your first flaw — that there is a “community” guiding Wikipedia. Unless you also define the various block-by-block neighborhood gangs found in Chicago, for example, as a “community”, then the label is not an apt one for how content is managed on Wikipedia. Actually, to call the small pockets of content influencers “gangs” would be more apt a comparison. As with street gangs, they are *highly* territorial, and they put so much fear into the hearts of youngsters who don’t wish to join one of the gangs, that these youngsters literally walk down the middle of streets in parts of Chicago, because they believe that is the safer way to get from point to point. They don’t dare want to show any affiliation with the “wrong” gang that might control one or the other side of the street. (Listen to NPR’s Scott Simon for his recent in-depth news story about this phenomenon.)

      Have you ever heard of something called a “community ban” on Wikipedia? This is where the so-called “community” can assemble and vote (though they always deny that actual “voting” is going on) whether or not to permanently block a particular User account from ever engaging in Wikipedia again. There have been such “community bans” enacted with as little as a few hours of discussion time, or with as few as five or six voters, or with no opportunity for the accused User to defend himself or to know the identity of his accusers. That’s not a “community” in action, Conny; that’s a Star Chamber.

      Lastly, I have to object to your statement that “the reluctance of the students to use Wikipedia actively… remains the main issue to solve this year”. If you were running a course on Feminism and Sexual Discrimination, would you require the students to all attend “Amateur Night” at a local strip club? I know that this comparison sounds over-the-top, but consider for a moment we’ve seen that Wikipedia’s culture and governance system often makes light of such disconcerting phenomena as pro-pedophilia editors interacting with minors on Wikipedia, or minor administrators adjudicating whether nude photos uploaded to Wikipedia (or Wikimedia Commons) should be labeled as “Category:Pornography” or not. Take a brief look at the back-story of one Wikimedia UK charity trustee: http://www.examiner.com/article/wikimedia-uk-trustee-finds-his-hands-tied

      Now, having read that, is that the sort of environment where you want to push your students to engage “actively”? It is no wonder they exhibit a reluctance to engage in such a circus of mismanagement, deception, and prurient behavior. Perhaps as an educator, it is your role to maintain a safe and healthy separation for your students to *observe* and *document* how Wikipedia actually works, rather than sending them headlong into a misguided version of it that you hold in your mind.

      There are many of us in the Wikipedia criticism movement. We’re hoping for you, challenging you, to keep an open mind about whether or not Wikipedia is all that it’s cracked up to be by its zealous boosters, many of whom profit financially from its continued acceptance as an “important” site.

  2. I must agree with Mr. Kohs. He is assisting us with the writing of the first honest book about Wikipedia’s history and internal culture, and if anything. Mr. Kohs is being unusually easy-going about Wikipedia and Mr. Wales. The latter has a remarkable talent for lying, cheating, having sex out of wedlock, and then using other people to help cover up his imbroglios.

    Wales cannot be trusted to be honest about Wikipedia’s internal operations, any more than he could be trusted to write the early history of Wikipedia honestly. After all, Wales was repeatedly caught trying to remove the contributions of Larry Sanger, the one man who did more to set Wikipedia up in the beginning than anyone else, from numerous related Wikipedia pages.

    Anyone with doubts is welcome to email me at metasonix@gmail.com. I can bury you in further details about the rot at the center of Wikipedia.

    1. I agree with you that “Mr. Wales […] has a remarkable talent for lying, …”, but that wasn’t Conny’s point at all. How Wales is directing the Wiki affects first the English version thereof, with other versions to follow more or less. The Luxembourgish version always tried to remain as Wales-remote as possible. And there we are: Conny’s project was mainly on the Luxembourgish wiki, with the local community actively supporting her project, notably by giving only technical wikification help and refraining from taking any action regarding the actual content of the contributions (i.e. of course no discouraging edit wars or alike). Luxembourgish wiki cannot be compared with the English wiki criticised by you. Hence Conny’s choice was well-balanced.

  3. Reichling says, “We chose Wikipedia for its … democratic quality control (see TED talk by Jimmy Wales).”

    Wikipedia notoriously does not have democratic quality control. Demonic quality control, maybe. But seriously, quality control is perpetually getting worse over time (as shown in a University of Minnesota study about “damaged views”), and it really has never been democratic. What prevails on Wikipedia are various small cliques of editors who push a particular point of view, or even an agenda, and they have achieved the upper hand against less-indoctrinated editors who may have a more correct point of view, but are outnumbered or outplayed by the resident clique.

    At any rate, I don’t know why Reichling would cite a TED talk by Jimmy Wales as substantiation of this mythical “democratic quality control”. Would you cite a shareholder conference call by Kenneth Lay as proof that Enron had an accountable business model? Jimmy Wales frequently spouts half-truths and untruths that make Wikipedia sound polished and professional, but he has an agenda to protect — an agenda worth tens of thousands of dollars in speaker fees.

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