Discovering and learning by asking questions

This post is a discovery report written by Vlad John and slightly edited for publication. It’s part of a series of candid essays written by Google Code-in students, outlining their first steps as members of the Wikimedia technical community. You can write your own.


In the past years, I’ve used Wikipedia as often as I’ve used Facebook. I’ve used it for homework or simply for finding something new. When I was first introduced to the Internet world, I always asking myself: how can someone make a site with so many people browsing it? This year, I found the answer at the Google Code-In contest. As I was browsing for a task that suited me, I found an organization called Wikimedia.
While browsing the tasks they offered, I found something that caught my eye. It was a task about editing the wiki. I was so happy that I had finally found a task that suited my tastes that I clicked “Claim Task” before reading what I had to do. But when I read more about specifics of the task… well, it is enough to say that I had no idea how to start. I was supposed to “clean up” the “Raw projects” section of the Possible projects page. I clicked the link to the wiki page I was supposed to edit, and as I started working, I encountered several problems that I will describe in a moment. But thanks to my mentor, Quim Gil, I succeeded in completing the task.
I always wanted to edit a Wiki page, but at first I was afraid. What if I did something wrong? After posting a text file on the Code-in task’s page, I received a comment that said that in the end I’d need to edit the wiki page itself, so I might as well start early. This made sense, so I dove into the unknown territory of editing.
I started by looking at the history of the page to find the things I had to add. That took a while, but in a shorter time that I first thought was necessary, I learned how to find information in earlier edits, how to edit the source code of the page and how to do minor edits on the headings and structure. But this was the easy part.
I just had to copy some names and move them to their appropriate place. However, when it came to reporting bugs, I was indeed lost. I knew from the task I had to use Bugzilla to report bugs and add comments, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to do it. That is when I started doing what I had to do in the first place: ask questions.
I realized that the whole point of this exercise was to teach students how to do different things, and the most important thing when learning is to ask questions everywhere: on forums, consult the FAQ or the Manual , or simply search more for the answer. So I began by reading the full Bugzilla guide, but that did not really answer my questions. At least, not until I found the “How to report a bug” guide. This gave me some important information, like what to look for and how a report should look.
But I still had one problem: the guide said a thing and the mentor said something else. So I decided to ask once more on the page of the task. In no time, I received an answer and a model. Apparently, the guide was right about one part of the task, and the mentor was right about another part. So, by combining the answers from these two sources, I managed to find the answer to my problem. Once I knew what I was looking for, and once I asked the right questions, I got the answers I needed.
From there, it was not too hard to start adding and commenting bugs on Bugzilla. The next problem appeared when I had to add the bug reports on the wiki page… I thought I was done the moment I added the bugs on Bugzilla, but again my lack of attention and knowledge got the best of me. So I told myself: If asking the right question gets me the information I need, why not ask again? After all I am here to learn.
So I went back to the task page and put another 2 paragraphs of questions. Indeed, I received the answers that helped me learn something about editing the source of the page. So I dove in once again in the unknown and started the work. After a hard time finding the bug reports again, I was finally done and I completed the task.
After finishing, I realised that a person can learn anything on his or her own, but learning is more effective if a mentor or teacher helps you. Also, a teacher that just tells you what to read and does not explain is less helpful than a teacher that knows how and what to explain, when to do it and speaks to you in a nice way, and by that helping you, like Quim Gil helped me, with explanations and examples, in completing the task.
So, to sum up, if you ever want to learn something about Wikimedia (or other things), the best way is to ask other people, be he or she a mentor like Quim Gil was for me, or a complete stranger on a forum, like StackOverflow, which is an important place for coding and scripting help. Many people say that learning has no shortcuts, but, if questions are not shortcuts, then they sure are a real help in education. Why? Because with questions come information, and with information comes knowledge.
Vlad John
2013 Google Code-in student


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