Whether via social media, email, or text messaging, we increasingly communicate online. Sites like Facebook and Twitter let us keep up with friends and family, but they also give our words the potential to reach a very large audience.
This explosion in online communication can be a powerful force for unification, but it can also have divisive effects. The ability to communicate, whether online or offline, is a skill to be honed and mastered. In text-only communications, it’s easy for tone to be misconstrued, and well-meaning interactions can quickly escalate into fruitless, even abusive encounters. It’s no surprise then that communication skills are at the top of the requirements in so many job listings. But where can people learn the skills necessary to communicate effectively and civilly in an online environment?
That’s where the Wiki Education Foundation can step in.
Through our Classroom Program, more than 10,000 college and university students contributed to Wikipedia as part of their coursework this year. Instead of the traditional term paper, students either add to or create new Wikipedia articles on subjects relevant to their course.
How does contributing to Wikipedia help students develop critical online communication skills? Wikipedia is an online community of volunteers (Wikipedians), who have developed a code of conduct to govern communications on the site. Online collaboration is at the core of Wikipedia, and when students engage with this community, they must learn and adhere to Wikipedia etiquette (Wikiquette).
Every Wikipedia article has a Talk page, and it’s here where students begin to hone their online communication skills. Click on the Talk page of any article, and you may find a glimpse into the inner workings of the Wikipedia community, and how they communicate.
When students begin to interact with other Wikipedians as they participate in Wiki Ed’s program, they have to consider a host of factors.
- Tone: Wikipedia dictates that its users maintain a polite and respectful tone. Even if a student disagrees with another editor, she must continue to engage with that individual in a civil manner via textual conversation, regardless of whether or not this behavior is reciprocated. For many of our students, this is the first time they’ve had to learn how to engage in civil online discussions with ramifications for their academic careers, and in doing so, gain the ability to diffuse tone-based conflicts in other social media environments.
- Good Faith: Wikipedia asks all users to “assume good faith” on the part of other editors. When Wikipedians assume that other users are well-intentioned, conflicts are often avoided or more easily diffused. As a result, our students can approach online interactions with a collaborative spirit. Even if they disagree with the individual on the other end of the keyboard or mobile device, they will come to the conversation with productivity and resolution as the end goal.
- Responsiveness and responsibility: When students contribute to Wikipedia, they commit to engaging in discourse with the community. They are expected to respond to questions and feedback by other editors, and to do so in a timely and respectful manner. Our students learn to be accountable for their work. Whether in a Slack conversation with a future coworker or a text message with a friend, they know it is their responsibility to equally participate in an online discussion.
- Conflict resolution: Disagreements arise on Wikipedia, but they are resolved through discussion and consensus rather than name calling and attacks. Wikipedia has a strict policy against edit warring — the practice by which disagreeing editors delete and reinsert contributions over and over again. If a student finds that her work has been deleted, she has to seek out why this is the case. She must contact the editor who reverted the work and attempt to understand how she can work with this editor to improve or revise her contribution. Our students know that results arise not from closing doors, but by keeping the lines of communication open. They know that conflict should not represent the end of the discussion but rather the beginning.
- Neutral Point of View: When contributing to Wikipedia, students must strive toward a “neutral point of view” (NPOV) — they must consider all valid sides of a topic, regardless of their own feelings on the matter. While NPOV doesn’t strictly govern interactions among editors, it compels them to consider that every issue has multiple points of view. When students master NPOV, they understand that most subjects are complex, and that while they may not agree with one point of view or another, on Wikipedia they are obliged to consider it as long as it’s based in reliable sources. After our students have completed a Wikipedia assignment, they are able to quickly discern whether the author of the news article their friend posted has supplied a balanced summary and whether the sources they have used are reliable.
Whether our students bring the communication skills they learn from contributing to Wikipedia to their first job, a friendly encounter on Facebook, or a tense online debate, they will know how to convey their thoughts in an effective and respectful manner. They will understand that online communities don’t just exist to air grievances, but that they are places to resolve differences productively. they will know how to navigate an often divisive landscape with ease, but more importantly, to turn division into dialogue.
Since our program began in 2010, we’ve helped more than 28,000 students develop these online communications skills. With your help, we can provide these skills to even more students:
- Teach with us: If you’re a professor at a college or university in the U.S. or Canada, consider incorporating a Wikipedia-based assignment into your class.
- Spread the word: If you know anyone who might be interested in teaching with Wikipedia, please encourage them to contact us firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Make a donation: As a nonprofit, we rely on generous contributions to make us scale our impact. Your gift today will help us support more students next year.