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Roland Fischer Religion Teacher and School Homepage Webmaster, Akademisches Gymnasium Graz
Friend, foe or simply two worlds with more in common than one notices at first glance? What links a renowned educational institution like the Akademische Gymnasium in Graz with the comparatively young and unconventional online network behind Wikipedia? The conveyance of knowledge is the lowest common denominator - but what role can, and may Wikipedia play in day-to-day school life, and what changes and challenges arise from this? Roland Fischer, runs workshops at his school with the Wikipedia authors Heinz Egger and Karl Gruber which provide answers to these questions, and has himself been infected with Wikipedia fever.
To what extent has our joint work changed your view of Wikipedia?
- I would, to begin with, like to provide some background information as to how I myself happened to take part in Wikipedia projects at all. At the beginning of 2012, I accidentally discovered a Wikipedia article about my father, Karl Fischer. This largely correctly represented the essential parts of his life. I was very pleased about it because I had always had the desire to write such a Wikipedia article myself. I just had no idea how one went about it. Having extensively researched my fathers life story, I thought it would be fitting for this article to also contain some photographs of my father from my private collection. I read up on it briefly and later the same day registered with Wikipedia (and, in the process, also with Wikimedia Commons) with my present user name. Still without knowing, of course, whether I had done this correctly, I scanned three analogue photographs of my father and then uploaded them to Wikipedia Commons - still lacking the correct file descriptions. I simply did it. I then integrated the pictures into the article with the help of the instructions that I found. This all happened within the space of a day and I was somehow proud of myself that I had managed to do it.
- I was afterwards also able to get in touch with the first author of the article. I introduced myself and offered to help him - in the form of my very personal information - with its further development. I sent this information to him and he then did this on my behalf. I gradually started to change a word or modify a sentence myself, here and there, in various articles. I first got up the courage to write a new article, and namely one about my grandmother Maria Fischer, and to put it on line a few months later. The topic was apparently of sufficient relevance and the article was not deleted. I was very happy and grateful and afterwards continued to contribute further small articles. Heinz Egger wrote to me in connection with one of these articles, asked me a few questions and said I could call him. Which I did. I immediately noticed that this helped me immensely. Until then I had worked very much autonomously. Heinz immediately pledged me his support and then, completely to my surprise, awarded me my first Wikipedia medal. This personal acquaintance decisively altered both my own work, and my view of Wikipedia. I noticed that it can be a fundamental element to personally get to know other colleagues, to be able to ask them for advice and to know a bit more about each other. I have therefore also taken part in a number of Wikipedia meetings and met other authors in person.
- My view of Wikipedia has in the meantime changed, insofar as I now know, through personal experience, just how much the work and personal commitment of so many people lies behind what Wikipedia is, and how it continues to develop. I have also made the experience that it must not necessarily be disadvantageous when someone else continues to work on an article I have started or contributes improvements to it. Moreover, when something in an article is the subject of discussion, this is not necessarily something negative but rather the effort to further develop something. Destructive situations, of course, also occur from time to time but then one must differentiate the one from the other. I have furthermore become a much more critical reader of Wikipedia. I am not always satisfied with everything and, in those cases in which I feel I possess the necessary competence, I seek to get involved and consider how one could improve them.
Which experiences were important in your decision to integrate dealing with Wikipedia into day-to-day school?
- This was actually not my idea. Heinz Egger had signalled his willingness to come to "my" school and present the project to us. Karl Gruber's attendance was also very positive. We together discussed how it could take place and presented the project to my Headmistress. She thought it would be something totally new and was happy to let us try it out. We did it within the framework of German lessons. The project was very positively received by those to whom it was presented, both students and teachers. A few weeks ago, one of this years graduates who last year attended one of our Wikipedia workshops whilst in the 7th year, told me that she recently had to address how one writes a Wikipedia article in a task within the framework of a German test. The view of students of Wikipedia has, in aggregate, also been positively impacted. I continue to allow them to participate in my own Wikipedia work, the students know about this and have a specific contact person in myself.
- I have subsequently massively expanded the Wikipedia article about my school. This has had many positive effects. My Headmistress asked me if I would be prepared to provide my services as webmaster for our school website. When I accepted I was already aware what type of a window to the outside world Wikipedia can be for a school, what then also applies to a school website. How can I make something as interesting, transparent and comprehensive as possible for the readers? This may also have contributed to the very positive development in the application numbers for our school since then.
- Last years 7th year students are currently facing the problem of preparing themselves for the "pre-scientific work" (VWA) that is to be written for the new central school leaving examination. We have prepared our own script in order to standardize the use of scientific citation in our school. This script also contains the stipulation that Wikipedia may not itself be given as a reference. This is because various - basically anonymous - authors work on the texts, for which reason Wikipedia is not citable in a manner that is usual in the scientific area. I was, however, able to show the students within the framework of a VWA-preparatory workshop, how they could indeed make use of Wikipedia and Wikipedia Commons for their "pre-scientific work". Whilst they are namely not permitted to cite Wikipedia texts themselves, they are allowed to use all of the bibliographical references and individual verifications contained within them. They are of course also allowed to use the files available in Commons (pictures etc.) together with the corresponding citation.
- I have for some time also used existing knowledge from Wikipedia and existing material from Wikimedia for my own lessons as a catholic religion teacher. The upper school syllabus includes for example the development of catholic architectural style through the centuries. I have compiled a variety of pictures for corresponding typical buildings from Styria for my teaching. We are permitted to use the pictures from Wikimedia Commons, so why shouldn’t we also use them for school teaching purposes? In this way I was able, so to speak, to bring the whole of Styria to us in the school!
Have the Wikipedia Workshops helped the students to better handle Wikipedia?
- They have certainly brought a lot of progress. If one assumes that people now themselves have the idea to become active in Wikipedia (or in partner projects such as for example regiowiki), to register and start to write, I cannot produce concrete numbers relating to new users. I definitely know of some youngsters who have registered, but I don't know what the individual persons are doing there. There are certainly some, because I am specifically asked every now and then to provide advice or support. We have a modular course system in the upper school. When I have some time left over and the resources I could maybe offer a dedicated Wikipedia course within the framework of this. This idea is at the back of my mind.
Irrespective of being themselves active as authors, do the students now generally have a better understanding of the mechanisms behind Wikipedia?
- I see it with my own son who attended a Wikipedia workshop given by Heinz and Karl, and who had to write a "pre-scientific work". He knew how to deal with the knowledge that he finds in Wikipedia. I also know from other youngsters that they can now see and use Wikipedia in a more differentiated manner. At the start of all Wikipedia workshops Heinz asked the participants how often they used Wikipedia. Virtually nobody used it at the most once a month, instead most used it on a daily basis or at least once a week. When these youngsters have taken part in such a workshop they afterwards know how Wikipedia articles come into being and who works on them. Nobody actually new this beforehand, that it is a coproduction involving many people. The students know this now. The access to and handling of this new type of freely accessible knowledge have thereby changed.
- I would also like to say that I am personally very grateful for all experiences obtained in the course of all Wiki projects because I myself have overall learnt a very great deal. For me Wikipedia is not just give, but also take and the ability to receive - not a one way street.