Education/News/September 2019/Organizing the Education space at Wikimania 2019 - A conversation with Shani Evenstein

Organizing the Education space at Wikimania 2019 - A conversation with Shani Evenstein

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Summary: Before starting her appointment as a member of the Board of Trustees, Shani Evenstein Sigalov lead the Wikipedia & Education UG as its Chairperson. In this capacity she was engaged in curating the Education Space at Wikimania 2019. In this conversation with WMF Education Program Officer, Melissa Guadalupe Huertas, she shares an insight into what it took to collaboratively organize this space.

MGH: What was the motivation of the Wikipedia & Education UG to volunteer to lead the curation of this Education Space at Wikimania 2019?

SES: It seemed to be right up our alley, so to speak. Some of the things the Wikipedia & Education UG is aiming to do is to bring together EDUWiki experts from around the world, volunteers from different places, different types of initiatives because the education field is so varied. We're trying to make sure that we have a space to have a discussion on our global needs. Although each of us is doing their own thing, some of us are facing the same issues and global needs. So sharing these issues, the hardships and successes, is important because it allows us to learn from one another and to also make sure that we can advocate for changes that we need to make our work more efficient and to be able to scale. So when we heard that there’s a new concept for this Wikimania with spaces it was clear to us that we were in exactly the right position to help the community curate its own agenda for this Wikimania space. I'm happy we got a chance to do that.

MGH: Could you tell me about some of the process you followed from making the open call to receiving proposals for the space and then curating them until the final schedule became what it was? How did you communicate this process?

SES: Sure. First of all, for us it's always about representing everyone’s needs not just ours so it was important from the beginning to make sure that we were giving a voice not only to the board of the UG (who were the people responsible for the space) but rather to the whole Wikimedia education community. It was clear to us that this was a collaborative effort. So we saw first of all the Wikimedia Foundation Education team as an ally and a participant that we have to collaborate with. Then we made a call out to the community to see if there was anyone interested to be in the program committee. The idea was to have different voices to weigh in on how the space would be built, what would be accepted, what would be rejected. We got 2 - 3 wonderful volunteers that we actually don’t usually hear from so it was a really nice opportunity to get to know some people that we hadn’t gotten a chance to work with before. So we had some representatives from the UG and from the WMF Education team, and we made sure that they came from different places in the world and that we had a gender balance. At the end I think we were 6 - 7 people at the program committee. Then what we did was created a call out for submissions. We got about 40+ submissions just for education. At the beginning the process was to simply go over them, rate them and see if we were in agreement, and we did it separately so each of us was not influenced by what others were doing. The rating helped us see if we were on the same page or not. Then we had a call with some of the committee members to make more decisions because one thing that happened when we looked at the submissions was realizing that “hey we have four submissions that look the same or talk about the same issue but we're completely missing other things”. So one very important thing that happened during the process of curating this program was to not only look at what was submitted but to also invite new submissions that didn't exist or to create panels or workshops that we thought are important to offer to the community that would be arriving to the conference. We also made some very hard decisions and I think the first decision we made was that we did want this year for the submissions to be presentation type: the good old boring and very passive kind of way to present material or someone standing on the stage and telling the story of their initiative. Don’t get me wrong, these things are also important and they had a space but we wanted the focus not to be on personal presentations. We wanted to make sure that we were able to utilize the fact that we have a global community coming together and to put in the same room, for the first time maybe, experts working on similar things to have a broader discussion. So we ended up creating active panels to really have discussions on some key issues and different aspects of education. So we tried to find different cross sections between education and other things in the movement and we ended up with panels with experts who do similar work around the world. Some good examples would be the education and Wikidata panel, the gender and education panel, the libraries and education panel, and there was also one for education and medicine, all with participants from around the world. Really very diverse panels. Besides the panels we ended up with two or three keynote lectures that were carefully chosen in advance. We also had one session where we had kind of short TED talks of 10 minutes each to present specific topics that didn't fall into a specific panel. Other than that we had some workshops (which were successful in varying degrees but we learned from every single one). I know that the fact that some of these were recorded was really helpful to some people because, you know, they can now go and watch them and it’s a resource where the wider community - not only the people that came to the conference - can actually use to see what’s happening in a specific field. So if you’re interested in Wikisource or Wiktionary, for example, you now have a panel discussion with experts to talk about what works, what doesn't work, etc.

MGH: I agree that it was a really nice balance and there was a lot of participation from the audience. Now, you reviewed all the session proposals and the ones that actually came to the stage. I'm wondering what those sessions and the topics presented tell you about the work of the Wikimedia education community around the world. What do you consider as some highlights and some opportunities for growth?

SES: That’s a good question. I guess there were some things that popped. First of all, after reviewing all of the proposal and identifying what was missing it was quite clear that there’s a wide variety of initiatives - that EduWiki is not just one thing. Running educational initiatives connected to Wikipedia and its sister projects is not just one thing, it's a variety of different types of initiatives, projects, programs, and each type of person or organization calls it a different thing. It could be in academia, higher education, K-12, even with senior citizens but it seems that it doesn't matter where people come from there are certain things that are connected to everyone. So everyone wants to scale, everyone wants to do more, everyone wants to be able to have more volunteers, more impact, more teachers collaborating with them. So that was one thing that is clear: that despite the differences and despite the fact that usually in the day-to-day life we usually are so caught up with our own projects there are actually some other people in the world probably doing what we're doing. And even if not, there are still some similar initiatives that might deal with the same issues that we do. I would say it was the first time in all the years that we’ve been running EduWiki initiatives that, for instance, we brought together a panel of people doing something related to the gender gap in education or to minimizing knowledge gaps in education institutions or settings. So it was having the opportunity to hear from someone from Sweden, the US, India, Israel - such different places and all doing it differently with different perspectives but it shows that people are concerned with the same things and they want to achieve the same goals. They might have different strategies to get to these goals each according to his or her own settings, connections, the capacity of the community they come from, but everyone’s trying to do something and it was really empowering and also interesting for people who haven't considered doing it.

It was also clear that tools and infrastructure is still a challenge that the community is struggling with. This has been a focus of the UG for some time now and we're planning a survey that will be sent really shortly to get some feedback on this. A good example of this was that during the Wikisource and Wiktionary session one of the things that I encouraged all the panelists and the facilitators to do was to also talk about the hardships, the challenges that also exist. We have a tendency to always talk about the best practices and success stories but I think it's as important to talk about what's not working, what are some of the challenges, where are we not succeeding the way we anticipated or wanted to, and why. So I was listening to the panel on Wikisource and Wiktionary and I think it was Reem from Egypt who said “I waste so much time trying to make lists (on Wiktionary for her students)”. Now this is an issue that anyone who is doing any work with students knows. So I remembered that I have a tool that I use all the time in my Wikipedia initiatives and it’s called “Not in the other language”, this tool has been extremely helpful for me in terms of creating list for my students for things they can translate from one language to the other. So I thought: “Why don't we have something similar for Wiktionary?” and because it's Wikimania and we have the community there I was able to catch one of the developers in our community, a great guy called Amir, and I told him about Reem’s issue and he said “okay I'll look at it” and on his way to the airport he solved it. He took that existing tool and adjusted it and there we go! Now the community has a tool to helps to curate lists for Wiktionary from any language to any other language and that's a great example of the power of Wikimania. And it’s not the first time this has happened. Our ability to connect the right people at the right moment is sometimes crucial. From that discussion we also found out about another tool that exists and no one in education knew existed: a specific dashboard for Wiktionary, now the UG is going to host the person that developed that Dashboard in the next open meeting to showcase the tool and to make sure people know it exists and they can use it. These things happen when you have a global community with so many talented people collaborating. So I would say we still have global needs for technological tools and we're going to do something about it.

And I would say if I have to choose one more thing is I think the discussion we had about the SDGs and especially considering the strategic direction that we're all now being part of. This made it clear - at least to me and I hope to some others - that this is how we actually open our space. We tried to put some focus on the SDGs and make it clear why it’s important and relevant for us to kind of pop our head just above the water enough to see that “hey it's not just about Wikimedia and what they're doing but we are part of the bigger movement of open education and there is strength in looking at other frameworks such as UNESCO’s SDGs because so many other partners that we have in the global education movement are looking at it. There is strength in working together. So something that the UG is interested in is to advocate for what we do in the open education movement and we just started to work on that this year and we have still a lot of work to do, together with the education team at the WMF which is also working on similar avenues. I think it was really clear when we discussed the SDGs that partnerships and collaborating with others in the open realm is hugely important and it’s something we're not doing enough. It’s a way to scale our work because many of the open education people for some reason are not considering what we do at the Wikimedia movement as open education and they don't consider our products as OERs which is ridiculous because - you've heard me say it a thousand times - we’re the biggest OER that exists. So it looks like we have some advocacy work to do and so I was grateful for the opportunity to use this Wikimania to also do that just a bit and our opening panel specifically made an effort to bring people from this broader community of open education to the panel and to the discussion. I’m grateful that we had people from Open Education Consortium, Creative Commons, and from WikiEdu. I think it was a valuable lesson to the audience, we sometimes forget that there is a bigger thing than all of us and so connecting first of all to the Wikimedia community and then to the broader Open Education Community is highly important. I think these are the main things that popped for me.

Twitter: @WikimediaEdu #WikimediaEducation #Wikimania2019