The Wikiblitz: Exploring the meaning of Wikipedia in a First Year Digital History Seminar

Context: FYSM1405a is a first year seminar designed to give students an understanding of how historians can create ‘signal’ in the ‘noise’ of the internet, and how historians create knowledge using digital media tools. Given that many students when doing ‘research’ online will select a resource suggested by Google – and generally one within the first three to five results – this class has larger media literacy goals as well.

The first section of the course looked at the sheer mass of historical materials available on the internet, asking, how do we find our way through all of this? How do we visualize or otherwise identify what is important? The structuring readings during this module were reflections by the seminal author Roy Rosenzweig (founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). We also looked at how the ‘doing’ of history was itself an ‘unnatural act’, in Sam Wineburg’s felicitous phrase. This led to a second module where the students explored the idea that we never observe the past directly; we are always building models to fit what we ‘know’ into a system of explanation. In digital work, these models are explicitly written in computer code. Understanding how the code forces a particular worldview on the consumer is a key portion of becoming a ‘digital historian’. Computer games are another kind of model of the world; historical computer games are some of the best selling games on the market today. How do they represent history? Can we subvert or challenge these representations?

A consideration of gaming and an ethic of ‘playing’ with history led to the current module focussed on crowdsourcing history. Wikipedia is, in a certain sense, a kind of game where competing visions of common knowledge vie for dominance. We looked at simulations of termites as a metaphor for how crowdsourcing can create knowledge (the termites interact in a world with the simple instruction ‘pick up a piece of wood when you find it; put it down when you encounter another piece of wood’. From an initial random scattering of wood chips, a single pile emerges in the center of the world.) We looked at the history of Wikis more generally, and that of the Wikipedia itself specifically. I created the image at right to help the students situate when it is appropriate to consult Wikipedia (and when to cite it; the difference between using it as a tertiary source, and a primary source for a particular argument where it advances or illustrates the argument in some way).

The Wikiblitz assignment: To understand how the process of knowledge creation actually works on Wikipedia, by improving the article related to our local region. This assignment was partly inspired by the UBC SPAN312 2008 semester long experiment in writing collaboratively on the Wikipedia (for an analysis and post-mortem on this experiment, see http://bit.ly/13VZmJ ; other similar projects are listed here http://bit.ly/aWhq4p ). Two short videos were prepared for the students showing them the mechanics of how to edit a Wikipedia article.

Instructions to students: Examine the article. Identify areas that are logically weak or poorly written, or areas that are otherwise incomplete. Using a pseudonym, log into Wikipedia and make a substantial improvement to the article. Email me with your pseudonym and a brief description of the changes you made. All changes are to be made within class time.

Follow Up: During a subsequent class, the students will review how the article evolved during their blitzing of it, and the subsequent changes made by the wider Wikipedian community. They will be asked to reflect on how much of their contribution survived the interval; why did those parts survive? Why did some parts get reverted or deleted? How does the Wikipedian community deal with citations and points of view? Their reflection will be written before the class discussion, taking the form of a short paragraph, and will form the jumping off point for the class discussion.

Part one of this assignment – the wikiblitz itself – was conducted on November 26th 2010. Part two – the reflection and discussion – will take place on December 1st 2010. On December 1st, the students will be shown a time-lapsed video illustrating how the wiki page changed over the course of the blitz and the subsequent week. They will then be given the prompt to take 15 minutes to write down their reflections on their experience creating knowledge on Wikipedia. They will then share their observations with their seat mates to either side, before sharing with the class as a whole. Their written reflections will be taken in for grading as per the rubric (noting that the majority of the points concern their actual engagement with the Wikipedia page).

Rubric for this assignment

3 2 1
Blitz Editing Major contribution made Minor contribution with several corrections made throughout the text Minor edits only
Wiki Style Observed Wikipedia’s house style English is generally correct, but NPOV is not observed English is problematic
Sources Cited appropriately Citations problematic No citations
Reflection Knowledge creation Reflection shows deep thought on how knowledge is negotiated in a wiki Reflection shows some awareness of how knowledge is created Reflection shows little awareness beyond the student’s own point of view

Total points: /12

Desired Outcomes
The students should see how knowledge creation on Wikipedia is as much about style as it is about substance; how Wikipedia constitutes a kind of peer-review; how the ‘neutral-point-of-view’ (NPOV) provisions lead to particular kinds of rhetoric and judgments regarding knowledge credibility and suitability.

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3 thoughts on “The Wikiblitz: Exploring the meaning of Wikipedia in a First Year Digital History Seminar

  1. I think this is a great idea. I’ve just finished running a module on digital communication that tries to get the students to engage with just these issues. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes

  2. Really interesting assignment! I tried making the students create a wiki more or less from scratch this semester (on WikiSpaces), and there was much resistance. Improving on an existing article through blitzing sounds like a good way to get them interested and see results immediately (not to mention teaching them how to revise and rewrite something).

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