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Three perspectives on widening representation via Wikipedia editing

15 Dec 2023 | Dr Jane Essex, Isla Baillie and Dr Kirsty Ross With equality, diversity and inclusion a sustained focus for those in higher education, Jane Essex and Kirsty Ross consider the merits of wiki editing as a tool for improving representation and present one student’s perspective on its possibilities.

The Wikipedia editor and trainer’s perspective, Dr Kirsty Ross

“Wikipedia: the site that educators around the world teach their students not to cite. You may therefore be surprised that we totally agree with you! The true strength of Wikipedia is found in the reliable, verifiable, secondary sources cited at the bottom of every Wikipedia page. These provide a rich source of information that bolsters every Wikipedia article.  

"Unfortunately, some articles are thinner than others. This could be because just 4000 individuals actively edit English Wikipedia on a monthly basis. Or it could also be that we lack the secondary sources to verify that a topic, be that a person, a place, or an object, are notable enough to have an article on the world’s largest encyclopaedia. This is before you start to discuss the vast knowledge gaps that currently exist on Wikipedia whether that is related to content gaps, gaps in understanding about those who read Wikipedia as well as those who edit Wikipedia.  

"This sounds like a massive uphill battle but there is hope. The Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is to “imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”. That is their commitment, and it is one that inspired us as educators and students to try and make a difference.”  

The lecturer’s perspective, Dr Jane Essex

“I am far from being a digital native and remember my surprise when I heard about a knowledge base to which everyone could contribute. Like many colleagues, I have warned students to be cautious about using Wikipedia. However, I began to see that the openness of Wikipedia gave them a plurality that could be genuinely inclusive. Creating and leading a module on inclusion in STEM gave me a chance to explore whether Wikipedia could be harnessed to enhance the inclusivity of STEM. I invited Kirsty (as a Wiki trainer) to instruct my students about the processes behind Wikipedia and the ways in which individuals can contribute.  

"During a session on women in STEM, students were asked to look at the names of sixteen Scottish women scientists and match them to what they did. Typically, students recognised two or three names but were not sure about what they did. We would then discuss the historical injustice in the education system, where women might be offered botany as their sole science when their male counterparts did chemistry and physics in laboratories. One little known Scottish scientist was Mary Pirie, who wrote about plants for children. She thereby neatly illustrates the problem of partial curriculum access and low visibility of individuals in the history of STEM.” 

The Undergraduate Student’s perspective, Isla Baillie

“As a history student, STEM has never been my strong point. When selecting this module, I was drawn to it due to the inclusion angle more than anything else. I was unsure how I would fare in an unfamiliar environment and if I would be able to use my existing strengths developed whilst studying history.   

"By deciding to contribute to a Wikipedia article on the Scottish botanist and teacher Mary Pirie, I was able to highlight areas that needed to be expanded upon in the original Wikipedia page and start my research there. I looked at previous articles that had been referenced as well as online sources such as Pirie’s books, archived newspaper articles, and more. I scavenged local social media groups and online forums for the community where she lived most of her life. This gave me a better understanding of where she spent much of her time, how she had impact upon her community, as well as how she was remembered. This helped motivate me further ensure that the article was accurate and as well-researched as possible. See Mary Pirie_Wikipedia 

"Before this module and opportunity, I had little experience with Wikipedia. I had been warned of using it in school through harsh words from many a teacher or librarian with the explanation of “anyone can edit Wikipedia”. After doing this assignment, I see this as one of Wikipedia’s great advantages. While it is true anyone can edit Wikipedia, everything edited is meticulously checked over and need to be rigorously sourced. The connection between Wikipedia editing and my history degree is that we are told history is always written by the victor or those with money and power. Wikipedia gives us a way to change that, giving a voice to ourselves and others who may be marginalised or who were in the past, ultimately having a chance to take the challenge of widening representation into our own hands, particularly when it comes to an area such as STEM. This is especially important on a platform that has as much traffic as Wikipedia.  

"I was surprised at how easy it was to start making edits on Wikipedia once you knew the basics and had an account. I found the Wikipedia community was helpful in giving me tips to improve my editing and referencing. I also found it helpful to find communities of people who had the same passion for widening representation as myself.   

"Based on my personal experience, Wikipedia is a great tool for not only widening representation to make STEM more inclusive but for teaching useful tools that can help widen representation in other areas. This opportunity to edit Wikipedia has made me more passionate about inclusivity and has taught me valuable lessons about research. It is so easy to make positive change towards a more inclusive education for everyone, now and into the future.” 

Over to you...

Now that we’ve got you excited about building Wikipedia editing into your professional practice, you will be delighted to know that you do not need to reinvent the wheel! WikiEdu has a fantastic range of training resources for you and your students that you can use to build a bespoke course, along with a digital dashboard to track your impact.  

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