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Digital Literacy

Why write for and edit Wikipedia as part of NOW? Some thoughts on impact

We are days away from the Newspapers on Wikipedia Edit-a-thons at Middlebury (simultaneously hosted on the Vermont and Monterey campuses) and I have been thinking a lot about how important this work is. Earlier this month, I ran a similar event at the Open Education conference and I saw first-hand the impact a small group of dedicated people can have when they decide to contribute to and improve their digital environments. In just 3 hours, a group of ~20 folks, with additional people rotating in and out, managed to write 12 articles for local area newspapers. The event was fun, exhausting (I expended all of of my interpersonal capacity), but we walked away having accomplished something.

Visualized, the impact looks like this (a bunch of red/yellow dots representing western NY newspapers turn green, indicating that there is now a wiki article and info box for those papers):

via GIPHY

You might be thinking, “Um, Amy, twelve articles. That’s not a lot given the scale of the problems with our information environments.” I mean, is  really anything we do going to be impactful enough to make a change?

I wrestle with this question of impact a lot. It’s the same internal battle I feel when I am teaching a class, with expectations around grading in tension with the search for the deeper, sustained, and often initially-invisible impact a learning experience can have on a student. So what are the meaningful and long-term impacts of these edit-a-thons, and of the Newspapers on Wikipedia project more generally? Here are some thoughts…

1) We are filling a problematic data void. This is the most upfront and clear impact. We know that Wikipedia is a widely-used information source. Wikipedia articles are often a top result in searches. And we know that there is a significant data void for local newspapers on Wikipedia. Emma Lurie and Eni Mustafaraj found that thousands of news sources listed on the USNPL do not have Wikipedia pages and therefore do not produce easily accessible search results. If we are hoping that people will start using fact-checking strategies to help curtail the spread of misinformation, a data void of information on local newspapers is a big problem. The Newspapers on Wikipedia project aims to help eliminate that data void, and our edit-a-thons directly support those aims. Twelve articles, and the additional ~40 we hope to complete this week, will help to move the needle.

2) We are helping diversify voices on Wikipedia. Did you know that the majority of Wikipedia editors/contributors are white cis males? A 2011 Wikimedia Foundation survey found that 90% of Wikipedians identify as male and that these editors are “mainly technically inclined, English-speaking, white-collar men living in majority-Christian, developed countries in the Northern hemisphere.” (Sara Boboltz, source). Now, I know you might not think of diversity when you hear the word Middlebury. But our NOW outreach at Middlebury has focused on reaching a diverse group of students, faculty, and community members, and helping them to become Wikipedians. When I went out to our Monterey campus in September to work with students in Marie Butcher’s classes, for example, not one student in the three classes was from North America. That’s really exciting!

3) We are teaching/learning essential digital literacies. Writing for Wikipedia–adding well-researched and vetted information to a widely-used digital environment–is part of a set of essential digital literacies (check out these fantastic videos featuring Mike Caufield). I cannot stress enough how important it is that we work with students on developing strategies for dealing with their polluted information environments. The students we work with are excited to have tangible strategies they can use. We may have little hope for the older generations–as Mike Caulfield says, “because tribalism-yadda-yadda-yadda”–but we should believe that our students can and will be different. In his recent post called “The Persistent Myth of Insurmountable Tribalism Will Kill Us All,” Caulfield ends with this real kicker:

I don’t know where our students will be in ten years or what they will believe. I know that views do harden, even over the course of college. But they come to us, right now, wanting to do better at this, feeling guilty that they’re not, overwhelmed by the effort to close that gap. The fact that we don’t take advantage of that desire, that class by class we are letting this urge of students to do better wither on the vine so that they can later be groomed and radicalized by God knows who — that is something we will all come to regret, no matter which tribe we belong to. A massive, massive waste of human desire and potential in the face of looming catastrophe.

The report tells us the students would like to do better. The students in our classes learn to do better, and enjoy doing better. I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.

We want impact? There is impact. The digital literacies that we’re learning through the Newspapers on Wikipedia project, they’re not nice-to-haves. They’re essential to a future we want to see–a future where we are all stewarding our digital information environments with care, addressing pollution and pollutants effectively. They’re essential to helping us combat radicalization and polarization. And our students WANT them.

If you are interested in being part of this important project, please join us Friday, October 26 3pm – 7pm ET / 12pm – 3pm PT. Sign up for the Vermont edit-a-thon here; sign up for the Monterey edit-a-thon here.

Amador Loureiro

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