My issues with the Wiki Education Foundation
- Chris Troutman has been a campus ambassador for six classes in the Los Angeles area over the past four consecutive semesters. He is currently a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar at University of California, Riverside.
The Wiki Education Foundation, the separate non-profit that administers Wikipedia's Education Program in the US and Canada, recently ended their support of the campus ambassador program. The program was started in July 2010 as part of the Public Policy Initiative. Campus Ambassadors (with the epcampus flag) are meant to be a real-world Wikipedia representative on campus, interacting with the professors and students before these new editors are sent to Wikipedia. While campus ambassadors presumably remain part of Wikipedia's global Education program, students in the US and Canada may no longer be seeing these volunteers in their classrooms. I was one of those campus ambassadors and I did not take the news well. It hit me hard because being an ambassador was primarily what I joined Wikipedia for. I found out about the campus ambassador position in 2013 and decided to start racking up edits on Wikipedia in order to submit an application. I have always thought that although we cannot seem to stop Randy in Boise from editing, we can always try to recruit his antithesis.
Wikipedia is great for the literate self-selectors that can teach themselves by going through our numerous instructional pages. Just as our edit-a-thons accomplish outreach amongst those that will not be self-taught so too does our campus ambassador program reach those not already interested in wiki. Campus ambassadors put a face and a voice to the nebulous Wikipedia movement. For many coming to Wikipedia for the first time this real person in front of them was far more approachable and understandable. I felt utility in bringing the passion I have for the semantic wiki concept to college students so they would eagerly jump into it, too. Our campus ambassadors could instruct in a way our tutorials could not. When the program worked well, students and professors interacted with Wikipedia properly and some good academic content was added. Students not only got a grade for their class but they also contributed to living knowledge. They learned about both the reliability of Wikipedia and the community of editors, well beyond the academic facts learned in their class.
My criticism of the WEF has been that it never made an effort to manage those volunteer ambassadors. While professors like Adrianne Wadewitz could function as their own campus ambassadors, random professors that had heard about Wikipedia might assign their students to edit articles unaware Wikipedia had a formal program with which to participate and had no ambassador knocking on their office door. Some Wikipedians might be interested in volunteering as ambassadors but had no nearby classes using Wikipedia to interact with and no plan to initiate collaboration. Unless a Wikimedia chapter subsidized these activities no money was being allocated to support ambassador activity. Coverage was therefore uneven and in some cases ineffective. When classes of more than 40+ students taught by ill-informed professors arrived on-wiki without the preparation campus ambassadors could provide, editors bore the brunt of turmoil as articles were inundated with poorly-sourced material or copyright violations.
The WEF announced the change on December 18th, effective with the upcoming Spring semester. The announcement indicated that WEF sought to consolidate control of the program, making their own paltry staff accountable for interactions with the classes. But if the ambassadors we did have were insufficient to the task then reason dictates having zero ambassadors would not work any better. Unless the WEF planned to hire our intrepid volunteers I'm not sure what the way forward would be. What is the community's remaining education program in the US and Canada after all of its functions had been subsumed into the WEF?
Of course, the Education Program is less about teaching students and more about controlling the scholastic flood which arrives on our shores one way or the other. Wikipedia has been a magnet for some classes without Wikipedia's prodding and unless we put a person on campus these students will simply start editing without anyone on wiki knowing why. The education program noticeboard regularly documents these "stealth classes;" groups of new editors all sloppily editing in the same subject areas replying that their edits must stay due to a class assignment. I recall having to drop-in unannounced on one professor who failed to either reply to several talk page messages or return my numerous e-mails. They sent their students to Wikipedia with no regard for our guidelines or programs and I became the first Wikipedian they interacted with. Now I feel disempowered to conduct this sort of outreach and I fear many easily preventable problems will mount. Since the WMF fancies itself a grant-making organization I would suggest funding the ambassador program through organizations like the WEF and keeping coverage in both areas dense with institutes of higher learning and the schools where professors have historically been proponents of the program. I can only assume the WEF plans to effectively end the Education Program in the US and Canada by restricting course participation to the short list of professors they approve and banning the rest, batch reverting the edits of entire classes. Time will tell if this is the correct strategy.
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