Multilingual learning through the Wikipedia Education Program

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Anne Nelson's class at Columbia University
Anne Nelson’s class at Columbia University

In the summer of 2011, I got an invitation to attend the Wikimedia Foundation’s education summit in Boston. The summit opened my eyes to the ways other professors were using Wikipedia in the classroom, and to the additional potential suggested by the Wikipedia community.
I came back to New York energized and determined to work a Wikipedia component into my syllabus. My classrooms are unusual in several respects. First, we study the workings of digital media projects with an emphasis on evaluation, content which doesn’t easily lend itself to writing traditional Wikipedia articles. Second, my students tend to be about half international students. Third, it’s hard for me to devote more than a single class to a given tool or platform. Students have been publishing class wikis on the Columbia platform from the course’s inception, but this material is not directly transferrable to Wikipedia content. (See Finally, I was limited by the lack of a Wikipedia Ambassador. Whatever I tried had to rely on my own stretched resources, plus the students from the class.
All of my 25 students used Wikipedia, but only one or two had ever edited. But one of them, Michelle Chahine, volunteered to spent time with Wikipedia’s instructional tools and boil down a simplified version for class use. I then asked students to write, edit, or correct a Wikipedia article in English about an area of special knowledge and expertise, and record the process.
Then they performed the same exercise on a Wikipedia article in an additional language. This was where things got really interesting. First, my students had assumed that Wikipedia content on the same subject would be similar in different languages. This was often not the case. One student from Eastern Europe had extensive experience in minority rights. She looked at the Wikipedia article on Roma (or gypsies) in English, and added a minor edit. But the entry in her native language disturbed her with its negative language. She performed an edit with full citation, but it was immediately taken down by the lead editor of the page, who had written the problematic content. This showed us how powerful the correction process could be in a large language group, but also signaled problems in in small language groups (in this case, about 10 million people) or countries with less experience in creating content.
This year, the most interesting result came from an Asian student who had grown up in a rural area, and strongly believes in the mission of Wikipedia to bring information to areas that lack printed resources. This student reviewed the entry about women who had been captured by the Japanese army during World War II and forced to sexually service the troops. My student found that the English page used accurate language to describe their plight, but the entry in his native language used a term closer to “prostitute.” He performed an edit, and at least initially, it held. But the class was struck by the importance of the terminology, given the likelihood that the victims’ grandchildren would read this version of their families’ wartime experience.
I shared student papers on these topics with the Wikimedia Foundation (with the students’ permission), and I’m eager to see where these assignments will go in the future. I can already see one major advantage: there is an absolute difference between being a passive Wikipedia reader, and performing even a single minor edit. Once a student (or a professor) gets his “feet wet” with an edit, he crosses the boundary into being a contributor, and takes the capability along wherever he goes.
Anne Nelson is a specialist on international media and an award-winning author and playwright. She teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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