Lessons learned from the Jisc/ Wikimedia UK partnership

This is the second, reflective, part of the Jisc/ Wikimedia UK partnership report, following on from the Facts and Figures report. The reflections and recommendations are personal and are not necessarily endorsed by Jisc or by Wikimedia UK.


The audience for the project’s events were academics, researchers, librarians, support staff and research students across all subjects. All these people have different interests and different needs. The project aimed to raise awareness of the opportunities Wikimedia provides for innovative education (especially for fostering digital literacy), for research impact, and for encouraging the reuse of scholarly content. These opportunities might involve Wikipedia itself and the tools that have been built around it, or might involve other Wikimedia projects such as Wikidata and Wikiversity.

So there were a vast number of possibilities, and the project, as well as each individual event, faced a bottleneck in having to choose specific activities or tips. “Bottlenecks” are the recurring theme of the lessons learned, whether in terms of time and effort or the cognitive bottleneck involved in helping academics get to grips with Wikimedia.


We had a detailed plan for activity to cover the 100 working days of the project. Yet a lot happened that was unplanned. Arguably the most successful outcomes came from opportunities that arose, rather than from planned activity.

  • At the start of the project I attended a programme wrap-up meeting at the Jisc offices in London. The contact with Wellcome Library staff, with Mike Pidd of the University of Sheffield, and Humphrey Southall of the University of Portsmouth bore fruit later in the project.

  • The Spotlight on the Digital workshop was an opportunity that came up at short notice but my presentation and written briefing influenced the report and the other workshop participants. Like the programme meeting, it was also an opportunity to gauge existing attitudes to Wikimedia among important stakeholders.

  • The article for the CILIP website seems to be the most-read publication to come from the project, and was another unanticipated opportunity, in this case coming from an ongoing relationship between CILIP and Jisc.

  • The opportunity to influence policy for Dutch libraries came from a chance meeting at the Jisc Digital Festival.

  • There was no plan to produce videos, but the workshop at the Humanities Research Institute resulted in a video recording which is being shared online.

In the latter part of the project, as news spread that there was a Jisc Wikimedia Ambassador, some queries came through related to other potential activities or areas of co-working, for example in open bibliographic data. Not all of these could be followed-up during the project. However, I will continue the work in a volunteer capacity for the foreseeable future, and the contacts made during the project are available to colleagues.

Recommendation: Wikimedia representation in the sector

Wikimedia UK and Jisc can keep these opportunities coming by continuing to bring a Wikimedia point of view into events and fora where digital content, educational practice or research impact are being discussed. This could be as simple as supporting Wikimedia UK volunteers’ attendance at events.

Recommendation: Continued reporting

I should write an updated report on the project outcomes in six months’ time, early in 2015.

Barriers for academics

I have been running workshops and other events around the country and meeting with researchers and educators in other capacities. This is a summary of what has been learned about academics’ perceptions of Wikimedia.

First, some observations:

  1. People attending Wikipedia training workshops for the first time did very little editing on-wiki, even though they spent the sessions engrossed and asked a lot of questions.

  2. By contrast, those who had done Wikipedia training before (including a lot of the Oxford attendees) added a lot of content in a short time.

  3. Workshop participants usually had a nuanced understanding of Wikipedia in some respects. I did not have to explain that it was a decentralised, charitable project that uses crowdsourcing. Yet there was a lot that they learned in the workshops that surprised them or even totally changed their perception of Wikipedia. The most well-received learning points in workshops were relatively basic facts or features which are nonetheless invisible to the site’s casual readers.

  4. In the workshops, I asked participants to plan an activity they could do with Wikipedia or other Wikimedia sites that would support their work. A very common response was that they would do something, but they wanted to look at options before making a decision: in particular they wanted to try out editing for themselves.

  5. Feedback forms asked for attendees’ main barrier in working with Wikimedia. Lack of time and the resistance of colleagues were often mentioned, but the most common response was a lack of confidence.

Under the bonnet

Evaluation forms recorded a large change in participants’ understanding of the Wikimedia sites. Comments on these forms (all of which are recorded on the project wiki pages) showed that many attendees were seeing Wikipedia in a new light (e.g. “Great insight (practical & theoretical) into a resource I have used for years“, “Lots of inspiring new ideas”).

The best-received learning points included:

  • Talk pages where decisions about an article, file, or policy are made by an open debate towards consensus.

  • The sister projects such as Wikisource, Wikibooks, and Wikidata. For one academic, the most interesting thing he found during a workshop was the Wikidata map interface.

  • The quality scale: In past events I have given detailed information about the article quality ratings and review processes on Wikipedia. During this project, I saw that merely learning that there are quality ratings and formal processes of review is enough to transform academics’ views of Wikipedia. They see it as much more relevant to their own experience as scholars.

  • Article history: This records, in detail, all changes to an article, and shows what an article on Wikipedia looked like on any prior date. It links to additional tools that give useful summaries of these changes. These are potentially educational tools about contested knowledge, or research tools to examine online behaviour.

  • User contribution records: These record all the edits made by a particular account, and serve to distinguish helpful from malicious users. They are a way to monitor the behaviour of learners during assignments or a way to research the workings of an online community.

  • Microattribution: One central concern voiced in workshops was that academics are motivated by peer esteem, and hence it was essential to be able to evidence one’s contributions. To casual users it may look as though Wikipedia has no author attribution at all, but article histories and user profiles mean that wikis have microattribution. Even the tiniest change can be traced back to a real person, if that user is happy to be identified.

  • The course module: This makes it comparatively easy to monitor the on-wiki actions of many different users at once, so is an ideal tool to support educational assignments.

  • The stats tool: This records the number of views of an article each day. There are related tools that record views on a whole category of digital media files. For content holders, this shows that they can share text or media content through Wikimedia and still get detailed information about its use and reach. It is also potentially a research tool: one researcher wanted data about public interest in methods of suicide, and views of relevant Wikipedia articles are one way to measure this.

  • The front page: a lot of people only ever encounter Wikipedia via web searches; never visiting the front page. Hence they never see features such as “On this day”, “Featured article of the day”, “In the News”, or the links to other Wikimedia projects. The front page shows how Wikipedia shares knowledge for its own sake: the highlighted facts on the front of Wikipedia are very different from those on, say, a popular newspaper or a “clickbait” site.

  • The different language versions. These can be used to research or teach about cultural and linguistic differences and about the difficulty of achieving neutrality. The comparison tool Manypedia provoked some interest as a way of making these differences clearly visible.

  • The book tool: Wikipedia articles can be assembled into electronic books. If the articles are sufficiently reliable, this can be used to create custom reference works for courses.

  • Portals for educators and researchers: The education portal has guidance and case studies while the research portal offers access to data and other resources to support research into wiki communities.

Appropriate caution

Having looked at this list, we can start to explain the observations about events. The newcomers had just learned that day about many of these “under the bonnet” features, about Wikipedia’s definitions of neutrality and of free content, and about the mechanics of making an edit. These were all new concepts, or unexpected variations of familiar concepts, and they needed time to assimilate this new information.

The editathons also involved becoming familiar with online sources that could be used to improve Wikipedia. These sources included WikiVet; the Wellcome Library’s online research portal and sub-sites such as Codebreakers; and various online biographical works about women in STEM subjects. Participants had to get to grips with these sites, what they offer, and how to navigate them, not just with Wikipedia.

A natural way to react to this new information, especially for academics and librarians, is to spend time exploring: reading articles, talk pages, and policies carefully; finding relevant information in reliable sources; and assessing and comparing what they see. They took an appropriately cautious approach rather than diving in and editing. Participants who had already been through this process were much bolder.

Recommendation: Starting small

For many of us Wikipedians, a hobby that led to thousands of edits began when we fixed a typo. Yet we run training events in which we expect people to create an article on their first day.

Although it would take a lot of training or individual exploration to write a whole article in Wikipedia style, contributions do not have to start that way. A point that was welcomed in workshops was that if you are irritated by spelling or grammatical errors on a wiki, you can click Edit and fix them, unlike errors in other web sites or publications. These kinds of exercise, even though they do not require academic expertise, may be an important stepping stone for academic contributors.

The level of interest in the “ten tips for educators” article in Jisc Inform shows that the interesting and relevant aspects of Wikimedia sites are not difficult to understand, and can be conveyed in a succinct format.

Recommendation: Seeing differently

I focused in the workshops on the overlap between Wikimedia’s goals and those of researchers, content holders, and educators. In the editathons, we tried to get people quickly making actual changes to Wikipedia, first in a safe space, then in articles. A more achievable, yet still very valuable, goal is to give professionals an informed comprehension of Wikipedia and Wikimedia, especially if their own interest is in promoting students’ digital literacy.

Experienced Wikipedians develop skills of what might be called “Wiki-forensics”: scanning through an article history to quickly identify an edit war or a pattern of tendentious editing. Informed comprehension involves some of the same skills but does not have to have the same level of detail.

One easy step to informed comprehension would be a tour of a typical Wikipedia article and how to navigate to the “under the bonnet” features. This could be an in-person exercise, a webinar, or online tutorial. It would change how the audience see Wikipedia and other Wikimedia sites, and once the sites are seen as more understandable, other changes would come more naturally.

Success on Wikimedia sites still depends on a lot of implicit knowledge. Wikimedia UK and others in the Wikimedia community are working hard to make this knowledge more explicit, for instance by creating a VLE in which people can learn about Wikipedia in simple steps.

Recommendation: Follow-up

Repeated events with the same community will have a lot more impact than the same number of events for multiple audiences. Most people need multiple sessions to absorb the information and build confidence. Another reason is that a Wikimedia workshop or editathon is a new idea that the sector is still getting used to.

Yet another reason is that logistics and publicity are easier if they have been done before in the same place. A case in point was the Veterinary editathon, where delays in getting a suitable room led to delayed publicity, which in turn led to a lower attendance than would be expected for a similar event in the future.

So it is good news that the three editathons kicked off relationships with their host organisations, and are each likely to become annual events from now on.

Not looking or not finding?

Why do experts not discover the features and tools talked about above? For example, why do people researching Wikipedia not go to the researcher portal? I see two kinds of barrier.


One barrier comes from usability problems with the Wikimedia sites. In workshops, I showed newcomers a typical Wikipedia article and asked where they would click to get certain information. For example, how would they locate the article’s quality rating or its list of contributors? (more detail here)

This always proves a very hard task, and understandably so because those features are not obviously signposted. There is nothing to suggest that clicking on “Talk” will show the article’s quality rating, nor that clicking on “View history” then “Revision history statistics” will list the article’s top contributors. Some quality indicators take the form of an icon on the article itself, but these are missed because users understandably don’t know their meaning without being told.

“Talk” or “Discussion” is inevitably a problematic label because so many other sites have comment or discussion sections which are merely uninformed opinions about the topic and which are best avoided. It is natural that experts instinctively avoid clicking those buttons. The difference with Wikipedia is that Talk pages are for reviewing the articles and discussing improvements, not a general forum about the topic.

In short, the features that would help researchers and educators “look under the bonnet” are invisible to those users. Once they are shown them, they grasp the possibilities and see the relevance of Wikipedia to their work.

The other kind of barrier is psychological: people do not look for these features because they do not expect them to exist. This in turn may be down to inappropriate metaphors.

The “publishing” metaphor

Academics reading a Wikipedia article do not look for the reviewers’ comments, suggested improvements or previous versions because they are used to traditional publication in which these things are hidden away. It surprises them that all this information is public and accessible with just a web browser.

One academic was concerned about a particular image and asked how we suggest it gets taken down. It was a surprise, but welcome, to be shown the image’s Talk page on Wikimedia Commons, where the image had been proposed for deletion. Arguments had been put forward for and against deletion, but the deletion arguments had not won. This kind of open debate among peers, although very familiar to an academic mindset, is not the way that other publishers would decide whether or not to remove content.

The “tool” metaphor

New services or pieces of technology are normally introduced to educators as “tools”: indeed one of my blog posts was given the title “3 ways to use Wikipedia as an education tool”. When people think of an educational tool, they think of something that does an existing job more efficiently, and that opens up extra, related possibilities. An electronic whiteboard does much the same things as an ordinary whiteboard, but has other features as well. A Virtual Learning Environment is like an office with noticeboards, handouts, and mailboxes, but can do some other things as well.

If we say that Wikipedia can be used by educators as a tool, then it’s natural to ask its specific function: of the things I do now, which will it help me do more effectively or efficiently? The metaphor of a tool with a specific function, or even a set of functions, fails to capture the open-ended nature of Wikipedia, which is simultaneously a community, an online space, an evolving collection of content, and the processes and procedures that shape content.

As a community involving many thousands of people, Wikipedia hosts multiple kinds of learning. Some of this learning is self-directed, while some involves mentorship or peer groups. Some learning is implicit, taking the form of improved skills or judgement, while some is made concrete in the form of shared objects (including articles, guidelines, and media files). This description sounds like something we already know: a university.

Wikipedia clearly is not a university, for many reasons. The point is that, in explaining to educators how Wikipedia is useful to them, a university is a less misleading metaphor than others that might seem more obvious.

How could you use a university to promote learning? You might use a room to hold a seminar, or get learners to meet researchers, or access electronic journals through the library network. It is entirely open-ended. We have had universities for a thousand years and we have not yet worked out all the ways they can promote learning. “Wikipedia in education” is similarly an open-ended concept. On the one hand this means that there are opportunities to truly innovate: to be the first educator to do a particular activity involving Wikipedia. The downside is that endless possibilities can be confusing, so there needs to be a lot of documentation and guidance. The outputs of this project go some way to address this, but there can always be more.

The “social media” metaphor

Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of social media: people coming together online to build and share content with no central editorial control. It is unsurprising that people mentally categorise Wikipedia along with Twitter and Facebook as “big names in social media” or even as “popular websites where people spend a lot of time”.

Even when academics were highly engaged with Wikipedia, they had not looked for research resources about Wikipedia, or for the education portal to help them run educational assignments. Talking with them, I found that they just did not expect the Wikimedia community to give them that help, because the other big names in social media do not provide that free service.

Those other “internet big names” are fundamentally about creating shareholder value in one form or another, but Wikimedia sites are fundamentally about involving the widest possible audience in creating and sharing knowledge, so being helpful to researchers and educators is integral to their goals. Still, this difference is not widely understood in academia.

Another consequence of this metaphor is that people might expect Wikipedia to have the same “cognitive size” as other popular tools. Academics can learn all about how to use Twitter, and how it can enhance their research careers, in a one-and-a-half hour workshop. They might expect that a similar workshop about Wikipedia will give a similarly comprehensive view. Wikipedia, we have seen, is orders of magnitude more complex yet offers more possibilities. People can spend a whole day in a workshop, not get much beyond constructing their user profile, and yet still feel they have learned a lot.


The partnership project has shown concrete examples of academics making significant progress on Wikipedia, raising the profile of their subject, creating links to academic resources and supporting research and education activities.

These gains are not immediate because there are barriers. Some barriers are unavoidable given the complex nature of the Wikimedia communities, while some are avoidable problems with interfaces or documentation. Some barriers are simply due to preconceptions, so they can be taken down simply by articulating what Wikimedia is and does and how it aligns with existing academic practices and values.

A prediction, not a recommendation, is that there will be increased demand from Jisc’s customers in the next few years for Wikipedia-specific expertise, as academics experiment, discuss with colleagues, and continue to change their attitudes. They will still encounter some confusion and difficulties, and will seek a trusted friend to guide them. Jisc has decisively added Wikimedia expertise to the portfolio of support it offers the sector and is ideally placed to be that trusted friend.

Recommendation: Jisc and Wikimedia UK

Wikimedia UK’s education activity should continue to recognise the unique role that Jisc and its services play in the digital landscape, and it should direct people to relevant Jisc resources and services to support outreach in the education and research sectors.

The complementary activities, and similar aspirations, of Jisc and Wikimedia, have been very apparent during this project. Many of the most innovative researchers, institutions and educators are working on projects with both bodies. This overlap will only be stronger as time goes on. Hence Jisc and the community it serves would benefit if there were a Jisc Wikimedia strategy.

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