Hundreds of Czech university students have had a “different” homework during the past two years. Instead of writing essays that end up in the teacher’s drawer (or worse, garbage bin), they took part in the Czech program “Students Write Wikipedia” and made a Wikipedia entry which will last and serve as a source for thousands of Internet users. Similar university programs are running essentially worldwide and notable initiatives have grown in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. However, smaller Wikipedia communities (i.e., those writing in a less common language, such as Czech with 12 million native speakers) sometimes still struggle to develop a “Wikipedia education program” of their own. This article is meant to be a guide for Wikimedians from all those small communities, explaining the most important steps in the way toward a representative, yet organisationally simple education programs.
I originally intended to name this post something like “Education program in 10 days” or “10 steps toward your own education program”. Then I decided to go for a less cheesy heading – but the essence remains that this light-hearted post should present a simple and straightforward way towards cooperation with universities in your country.
Be modest in the beginning
I remember how excited I was when I decided to start the Czech education program. The important thing, however, is not to overdo the whole process. Easily, you may end up as a tired Wikimedian who replies to dozens of e-mails every day and motivated teachers haunt him/her in dreams. Really, start by running one or two pilot projects. Choose teachers in which you have a high confidence (e.g., your own ex-professors) and assist them as much as possible. Not only will it guarantee a successful project, but the teachers will feel good about the cooperation and will tip off their colleagues.
Learn to be a teacher of Wikipedia
One of your key duties is to be able to explain what Wikipedia is, how you can edit existing articles and how to add new. This is not as easy as it may sound. In your first lecture, you will try hard to say everything that can be said about Wikipedia. The students will, naturally, feel very confused. Over time, you will find out that there is really LITTLE that your students have to know in order to become Wikipedians:
- Everyone can edit Wikipedia. You do not own or sign your articles. Everything is released under a free licence.
- Every article must not plagiarize, must cite sources, must be neutral and deal with a “notable” topic.
- This is the edit button, this is the editing window. Here you have buttons to add hypertext links, images and citations. Be bold!
And give them places to ask questions – as many as possible: Wikipedia environment, chat, social sites, e-mail, … be thoughtful of students’ preferences.
Tell the community about your work
Whenever you try to change something in the Wikipedia environment, two kinds of people may emerge. The first kind of them, “conservatives”, may question the meaningfulness of your project and provide all kinds of arguments why it is generally a bad idea to start such a program. You should not give these people an opportunity to claim that your education program is a “country within a country”, running without a consent of the community. Remember: always announce your plans and development of your project to the community; give them a chance to discuss it with you. I said that there are TWO kinds of people reacting to your education program: the second – and rarer – are volunteers. These people will be crucial in the next steps of your program and you have to keep them informed as much as possible – this is another reason why informing the community is such an important aspect.
Create a platform rather than a company
In small communities like Czech Wikipedia, it is very difficult to find volunteers who have time and willingness to become responsible managers of a Wikipedia education program in their free time. Often, however, you will meet people who can do something here and there – draw a logo, lead a project at a certain university, do some bot work for you or give a lecture on Wikipedia when you do not have time, etc. Volunteers like those are invaluable to you: learn to outsource as much work to them as possible.
Your education program should become an open platform for everyone who wishes to connect Wikipedia and education. Wikipedians will come and pair with teachers to create Wikipedian-Teacher duos. It will only be their, not your responsibility to lead the project successfully. According to our experience, this “asterisk” model leads to better results then directively controlling each program in a pyramid-like manner.
You should centralize all the information at one place, your Wikipedia program homepage. The page should be concise and give all the essential information to teachers, students, Wikipedians as well as to journalists. Also, never ask your teachers to fill in long questionnaires or submit complicated course statistics. Professors tend to be busy people and hate their day-to-day office work. All in all, you only need name of the course, number of students and a list of articles that they are about to write.
Advertise your results
Last but not least, devote some of your time to popularizing your results. Journalists use Wikipedia every day and they will love to ask you about all sorts of funny things. Also, they essentially provide an advertisement of your program free of charge! Many teachers found out about our program through the numerous articles published in education-oriented press or weekend sections of nationwide newspapers. Do not forget to post stories on social sites – they are easy to maintain and they draw attention of potential collaborators as well.
Vojtěch Dostál, Wikimedia Czech Republic