Posted by Sarah Currier on 10th September 2012
... or, how this skeptic was won over
Everyone's heard of Wikipedia. Not everyone thinks it's a good thing for education. However, these days, most people with access to the Web, including skeptics, have used Wikipedia at some point, even if only to settle a pub quiz controversy. It is the 5th (sometimes 6th) most used website in the world - and it's the only one anywhere near the top that is totally non-profit. Increasingly, education has been embracing Wikipedia; meanwhile, its governing body, the Wikimedia Foundation, has been embracing education in a number of innovative ways. The passionate advocates at Wikimedia UK held the inaugural EduWiki Conference in Leicester last week, and I attended on behalf of Jorum, taking part in a panel discussion on Openness in UK Higher Education. I was delighted to be asked to speak, but I really went to learn, and learn I did. This semi-skeptic was won over.
Where this ex-skeptic is coming from: birth of a librarian
Sometimes it's too easy for me to get bogged down in day-to-day work and a narrow view of what I am doing in my career. How to fix this metadata problem? When does that Request for Quotes need to be done by? Who is doing the meeting minutes? How can we get that person's excellent OERs into Jorum? Where are my travel receipts? What will JISC-funded services like Jorum evolve into with the societal and economic changes coming, locally and worldwide? How can I enjoy my weekend and do other stuff with my life when I'm so knackered?
Sometimes I forget what got me onto this career path. I never meant to have a career. When I was 19 I just wanted a job to fund my rock-n'roll lifestyle. I needed one where I could be my young, obnoxious anarchist self (yes, I was worse than this, once). Where they wouldn't object to my half-black half-blond punk hair. Didn't really care what it was. My sister made me feel embarrassed for staying at her place for free and drinking her beer. The new young case worker at the dole office reckoned "the hair wouldn't be a problem" (he had weird hair too). So I applied for a couple of lab technician jobs (I liked science and was good at it in school) and a library assistant job at Auckland Public Libraries. I borrowed a twinset from my Mum and changed into it in a public toilet in town, as near to the job interviews as possible, in case I bumped into any punk scene friends. I let my hair be itself: there wasn't any other option except a wig, which weren't easy to come by in 1980s Auckland.
The Libraries hired me. They liked me as I was. I began a career where I would be mentored by a steady stream of intelligent, talented and principled women. They sent me to study for the New Zealand Library Studies Certificate, a qualification that was designated "para-professional", took about three years, and no longer exists. When I came back from the first six week module, I embarrassed my boyfriend by getting very loud over dinner in public about what I'd discovered: librarianship is cool. Librarianship is about freedom, about empowering everyone, rich and poor, with access to all of the information they need, without bias.
Fast forward 27 years. I work for Jorum, where we are making teaching and learning content developed by and for the UK higher and further education sectors available to anyone with access to the Web.
From Wikipedia-skepticism to information literacy
Like many people in academia, including librarians, I was originally highly skeptical about Wikipedia. However, I was also always open to the idea that it really wasn't that different from the "authoritative" encyclopedias I'd grown up with, in the sense that nothing is truly objective or neutral. Mid-eighties feminism had taught me to question the canon of the white Western male cultural hegemony.
Later, as I learned more about information literacy and how it is taught by academic librarians, I realised (as they had) that Wikipedia was something that could be used as one tool in research, leading as it does, through referencing, to core academic and other reliable sources. That all of these sources must be evaluated by the reader for their accuracy, authority, bias, currency, etc.
And gradually, like many people with good Web access, Wikipedia became my own first go-to whenever I wondered about, well, anything at all. I have become lost in the Wikipedia vortex for hours at a time.
My concerns - the shadow side of open Web cultures
I still had concerns. I follow the Geekfeminism Wiki, and keep up with most of the social justice fringes on the blog-o-sphere. Word on the 'sphere was that Wikipedia is really dominated by white, Western men. That "the community" would regularly delete articles written by women and minorities if they didn't fit their pre-existing notion of what was important enough to be included. All while leaving up articles about obscure Manga characters and Linux distributions. There are plenty of anecdotes flying around (these came to prominence over wedding-dress-gate, not something I'd have chosen as the topic to bring up feminist concerns, but hey).
None of this was surprising to those of us who encounter subtle exclusion and microaggressions in many spheres of our lives, be they based on social class, gender, race or ethnicity, sexuality, etc. When something is not-for-profit and done collaboratively, by volunteers, who dominates? Those with free time and energy, and good access to (and comfort levels with) technology. And what do they generally do? Create a culture that is comfortable for them and benefits them.
This is something bubbling up through the cracks of many areas of our new world of free and open Web stuff. It's an issue that regularly flares up in open source software circles, and gamer culture, and the new atheism too. We're all grappling with it. There's no particular shame or criticism for Wikipedia here.
Apart from that, I still didn't really think much about Wikipedia. The Jorum team thought about the Wikiversity, Wikimedia's project to "set learning free", as we were developing our business case for Jorum. Are they direct competitors for Jorum? We thought not, and still do. Business case is all. We fill different niches and are complementary. Our hearts are in the same place. And our shared raison d'etre is an extension of that passion that first inspired me about libraries.
Dreams and nightmares at Eduwiki
At EduWiki we all shared, as a group exercise, our dreams and nightmares for Wikipedia's future. My nightmare was that Wikipedia would become the one, the only, single source of supposedly authoritative information, but completely dominated by the white, Western, male cultural hegemony I refer to above. It was hilarious to me that the man who read out a summary of everyone's nightmares interpreted this as "Western cultural dominance".. muttered quickly, moving on.
Then, I moaned about that all over the conference. One woman told me that he'd also said that some of the "dreams" were pretty esoteric: the example being that someone (not me) had said their dream was for Wikipedia to have an equal number of women contributors. Yeah, far out, right?
The happy ending for me included conversations with Martin Poulter (Wikimedia UK) and Annie Lin (Global Education Program Manager for Wikimedia Foundation, based in San Francisco), and the excellent presentation by Leigh Thelmadatter from Mexico on the issues encountered by those working with Wikipedia in educational settings outwith the white, English-speaking world. On the second day, Doug Belshaw flew the flag vividly for those excluded by the subtle mechanisms of middle class norms and culture.
There are brilliant, reflective and committed Wikipedians everywhere already working to make sure my nightmare doesn't come true. Martin talked about discussions their community has on the differences between neutrality and objectivity, the difficulty of defining or even ever achieving objectivity when there are multiple standpoints, and how thinking about systemic versus systematic discrimination is helpful.
Indeed many of the conference's presentations were around how to deal with the barriers that crop up for the more marginalised contributor, with some excellent stories coming through, from Mexico, to Egypt (where the Arabic Wikipedia is being worked on by teachers and learners), to Sweden.
It's important to remember that every social movement (of which Wikipedia is one) exists within this flawed human world of ours; they can't fix that, and we all carry those problems into everything we do. I believe that Wikipedia has as good a chance as any movement at achieving inclusivity and representing diverse voices and viewpoints.
What about Jorum?
At Jorum we need to work on our inclusivity too. We are talking about using our blog and Featured Resources over the coming year to make sure we encourage OER contribution by a diverse range of people and subject areas. We're starting by planning a Featured Resources collection to celebrate Black History Month in October.
If you have any ideas for this, or for future Featured Resources collections, please let me know! We'll no doubt stumble along the way, but we've got to start somewhere.Back to the blog Tweet blog comments powered by Disqus