Telling the stories of rural England with Wikipedia

Image shows Humphrey Southall at a lectern giving a presentation
Humphrey Southall presenting at EduWiki. Photo by Rock Drum, CC-BY-SA

This post was written by Dr Humphrey Southall, Reader in Geography, University of Portsmouth, written with Dr Martin Poulter, Jisc’s Wikimedia Ambassador and was originally published here

In November, at the EduWiki Conference 2013, academics and Wikimedians spent two days discussing a range of issues of common concern. David White of the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education delivered a keynote exploring the ways in which students use Wikipedia, and I contributed a presentation of my own, describing a Wikipedia-based assignment I give to first-year students in Applied Human Geography and also looking at how academics can inform the widest public about their subject, and raise awareness of the reliable sources used in research.

For the past two decades, I’ve been part of a team building the site A Vision of Britain with funding from Jisc, the National Lottery and research bodies. I have also been involved in international discussions about ‘gazetteers’, during which I’ve come to regard Wikipedia as one of the world’s most widely used gazetteers. In the course of creating links between A Vision of Britain and Wikipedia it grew clear how many stub articles existed about villages and that gave me an idea that developed into an engaging, challenging assignment for my first-year students.

In one module, I want students to get substantial experience of using census data, and of proper referencing – to understand the numbers associated with a place and be able to interpret what those mean for the people who live there. The new assignment idea was to get students to deliver their work into Wikipedia. Each one was allocated a Wikipedia article about a village in northern England, and expected to look after it over a period of months, making gradual improvements by adding reliably sourced information.

The students do not visit their villages, which are also too obscure to be documented in Portsmouth’s libraries, so their research depends on online resources, including A Vision of Britain, Online Historical Population Reports, British History Online, Neighbourhood Statistics, Old Maps Online, and Geograph. These sites and other initiatives to digitise resources have transformed our ability to carry out small historical research projects that were practically impossible not long ago.

In preparation, students had two, one-hour sessions on basic Wikipedia editing, learning how to create headings and links, and about Wikipedia’s style requirements. They were also referred to Wikipedia’s guide to writing better articles and to the extensive guidelines drawn up by WikiProject UK Geography, a group of Wikipedians working to improve relevant articles.

And we were fortunate to have enthusiastic help. Andrew Gray, then the British Library’s Wikipedian In Residence, used a tool to create a list of short, incomplete articles about villages that had not been worked on for at least a year. Keith_D and other veteran Wikipedia editors who focus on articles related to northern England also gave help and encouragement.

As an example of what the students achieved, the article on Sawley, North Yorkshire, which was formerly a bare list of key figures, is now a helpful narrative with 30 references. The article history shows this evolution in detail, with a student adding chunks of referenced text and Keith_D and other Wikipedians making tweaks and suggestions. The students’ work is not what would be done by professional historians working with archival sources, but I’m satisfied that the quality of referencing stands up against professional work.

The project was not without its difficulties. Some students initially found the prospect of writing ‘in public’ challenging, but now the articles have been improved most are proud to have their work on public view.

And there were practical problems. The useability of the Wikipedia interface was one, though this has got better over time. Students were also affected by restrictions that apply to ‘new accounts’ on Wikipedia – defined as those created fewer than ten days ago or with fewer than four edits. The restrictions are designed to discourage spammers, but they added a layer of difficulty to the first edits and meant that students could not configure their preferences.

The homepage of the Vision of Britain website

A growing number of course leaders in other universities worldwide are setting Wikipedia writing assignments, typically for second- or third-year undergraduates who would otherwise be doing a dissertation. Giving first-year students the tasks of researching, synthesising and writing their own articles is quite unusual, and it has become possible because of the very systematic online sources now available.

The assignment will continue next year and in the future. It is a victim of its own success in that northern villages with very short Wikipedia articles are now hard to come by, so future attention will turn to other counties.

There are some things that we want to improve on. For example, a lot of student discussion about the assignment took place on Facebook where it could not be monitored. One goal is to structure the assessment so that students are encouraged to take part in more open discussion, including on Wikipedia itself, where there are talk pages for every article and for every user.

The project was co-ordinated from a page on Portsmouth’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It was maximally convenient for students to have all course-related information in one place, but it meant that details of the project were not publicly accessible. That is something else that we will review.

As well as its educational merits, this assignment extended the knowledge that’s freely available to the public via Wikipedia and promoted the use of professionally-created geographical databases. The same could be done with many other subjects and their research resources.

Martin’s tips for educators who want to work with Wikipedia:

  • Tell the Wikipedia community what you are doing, so that they work with you rather than against you. Normal practice for educational assignments on Wikipedia is to create a project page, listing affected articles and involved users. Wikipedia has tools to register the students and to give staff a dashboard of students’ edits.
  • Take a good look at existing articles in your subject area to see the standard practices and styles that Wikipedians have developed. The ‘Talk’ page will show you past or ongoing discussions about the article and any reviews of its quality. The ‘View History’ tab shows how the article has evolved over time.
  • If you want students to create articles, make sure the topics are things that are extensively written about in reliable published sources that are independent of the subject. Many Wikipedia articles are short ‘stubs’ that are ideal for improvement; there are ways to list the stubs in a particular topic area.
  • Handouts, short videos, and other resources have already been created to introduce students to Wikipedia.
  • If you are already editing Wikipedia, try creating a new account and making test edits, to see how the interface looks to new users.
  • Above all, be sure to contact Wikimedia UK early on in planning the course, as they can help with all these points, and also put course leaders in touch with useful people for face-to-face and on-wiki support.

You can find out more about using A Vision of Britain and Wikipedia in the ‘A Vision of Britain’ blog, and about the Wikimedia 2013 conference on the Wikimedia UK blog. The slides from Humphrey’s talk at the conference are here.

Thanks to the Jisc Communications team for help with copyediting this blog post.