All posts by connyreichling

[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)