Learning from our mistakes

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I thought about writing this piece about how great the current education program is here in Sweden, how our path so far has been sprinkled by happy faces, enthusiastic teachers, students and pupils, and most importantly perhaps, how this work so amazingly wonderful has contributed to the Wikimedia projects in such a superqualitative manner. But then I realised two things.
Firstly, that it would be a lie. And secondly, had I written such a blogpost, what would it have given you, the reader? Sure, I do enjoy reading stories about prosperity and progress which may be rather inspirational, and perhaps so do you. But do we learn from them? Perhaps if they are tangible enough to be understood in terms of what worked and how it may be utilised in another context. But sometimes they’re just shared as success stories. No harm in that I presume, but I do somehow carry a hope of our organisation as a whole, all chapters, all people engaged and supporting the idea of free knowledge, also being, in itself, a learning organisation. This is the reason to why I will dedicate this blogpost not to success, but to failure, or mistakes, call it what you will. But this is what has not really worked and what mistakes we have done here in Sweden.

1. To overdo it.

We held a workshop with very interested teachers about Wikipedia, which we do, quite a bit too much perhaps, hold dearly. The teachers were all new to a talkpage or a view history tab on Wikipedia, and so far so good, as we told them about it and showed them where to find it and what to look for. Then we began to talk about the joy and extraordinary adventures of using, and contributing to Wikipedia, what one of the users had recently written on someone else’s talkpage, and how that user has come to be a bit more pleasant than earlier.
I think we lost them somewhere in a discussion about the structure of a biographical article: Should the date of the person’s birth be told before his or her reason for being in an encyclopedia? They could not have cared less. We were so excited though, that we, for quite a long time, missed that these teachers did not know the usernames of the people we spoke about, nor if they had been more or less pleasant to work with. We simply thought that they were so much in love with this huge group that they wanted to know it all, every little tiny detail of it.
How wrong we were. If nothing else, I think they were somewhat smitten with our enthusiasm, rather than the quality of content of the workshop. We lose ourselves in the excitement of Wikipedia and in our joy to share to the world the greatness of the phenomenon. But the teachers were at a conference and needed and longed for tangible, easily understood tools to use with their pupils. So, next time, I will not cut down on the enthusiasm per se, but find ways to channel this energy into something useful and more easily understandable for a group of people who have previously done nothing apart from reading articles redirected from Google.

2. From abstract to tangible.

Wikimedia Sverige members at a talk on Wikipedia.
Students in Sweden present on their contributions to Wikipedia.

In the past four months since I have had the honour to be employed as an education manager at Wikimedia Sverige, I have held quite a lot of lectures and talks. About Wikipedia, and more specifically, Wikipedia in education. And I have spoken myself warm of the greatness of the world’s largest groupwork, the philosophy that underpins Wikipedia, the beauty in assuming good faith and how great that is for our synapses movement in finding these patterns so that we may view people we meet, generally, with this assumption of good faith. I hardly get people who disagree when I tell them of this: The greatness of the contributors who write, categorise, care for, clean, and structure Wikipedia, all voluntarily. People, just as I am, seem to be warmed with hope for humanity and hope for a bright future full of free knowledge, accessible to all.
So all good? No. Definitely not. They walk away with this joy, and perhaps a bit of fulfillment from the knowledge of people contributing their knowledge, jointly, without a direct tangible reward. So they’re happy. But then they seem to think, “Hmm. Wikipedia is great.” Okay, that is great. “I like Wikipedia.” Okay, even better. “I would like to contribute to Wikipedia.” Ah, lovely! “I would like to do it with my pupils or students.” Super great! But then, have I given them any tools to do so? No.
They’re happy, but without tools to learn how to contribute themselves. I realised that I had an idea about people simply having to be eager, passionate and excited enough, to find their own way into actually taking part in this spectacular thing. Let me tell you, if this is not already clear to all of you but me, it is not. They still have no idea what to do or how to do it. So less talking about Wikipedia’s abstract greatness and underlying philosophy, and more about the examples, the hands-on ways of using Wikipedia in education. And perhaps even this in bullet points, or better, steps! I guess I was quite wrong in believing that curiosity and eagerness would drive people to get to know Wikipedia themselves as long as I came along and sparked their curiosity a bit more.
And well, yes, they asked and do ask plenty of questions, and love to hear stories about controversial subjects, famous people who have written about themselves, what has gone wrong and who actually does rule Wikipedia. But perhaps solely as passive listeners, who enjoy the entertainment of listening to a talk about a phenomenon they know. Not as active and eager to start to use contributors. Perhaps for that, hands-on examples are simply needed.
As with creativity, it is born and fostered not in a vacuum, but within a set of frames. If the examples of education and Wikipedia are the frames, they may wonder their own paths in their brain, connecting these examples to their current situation. Writing this out on a sheet of paper makes me think that this should have been so super obvious to me. So, if this is, and was, only me. Do feel free to think that this was a rather stupid non-working way of getting people interested in actually contributing.

3. To find a balance.

Sometimes in workshops, students, pupils, and teachers complain about the syntax. Oh it is simply so difficult and almost impossible to learn. Others find it quite easy and intriguing. Sooner or later they seem to either get to enjoy it, or at least learn to use it. Another aspect seems to be a bit more difficult: what to choose to write about or contribute to. May I here dare say that people are, in various ways, quite beloved with their own ideas, hobbies, and lives in general? This has a great effect on what people tend to want to write about. There’s nothing weird in that, but I do find it is quite a balance to have teachers who just want to start to contribute and are oh so eager to have their students or pupils write, and then ask if they could start by writing about the horse stable which they like that is around the corner from their school. Or if they could possibly add the picture of them standing in front of the museum in the article about the museum. Well, probably not a great idea, but I had said contributing was easy. And now, all of a sudden, it’s not. I’ve given them a tool that I am now trying to wrench from them. They were eager and keen to initiate their enthusiastic first contributions to Wikipedia, which I had energetically supported them in, then contrary to that, told them that most of their ideas from articles and contributions would fall outside the frames of relevance.
So, lesson learned. Do not be too enthusiastic, Sophie (memo to self), remember not to ‘sell’ Wikipedia as an easy to use tool for everybody. Perhaps it is not. This lesson, which I am not so sure about, is about balance. I know that. What I am not sure about though, is what this balance looks like. The cultural bar to start to contribute should not be too high, but not so low such that people experience a huge disappointment when their contributions are removed.
Hopefully this may help you make fewer mistakes, or at least different mistakes than these mentioned above. When you do, please share them.
Sophie Österberg, Wikimedia Sverige

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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