Education/Newsletter/December 2016/It’s a win win project: An interview with Sivan Lerer, a teacher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It’s a win win project: An interview with Sivan Lerer, a teacher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


By Shai Katz (WM-IL)

Editor: Dror Kamir, Translator: Darya Kantor (Daryag)

Snippet: Sivan Lerer (her Wikipedia hebrew username is: .סיון ל) is a teacher in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She led a successful Wikipedia project in the field of the Bahá'í Faith with the assistance of the chapter's team and one of the chapters volunteers, Darya Kantor.

We interviewed Sivan in order to learn more about running such a project. We learned a lot of tips, stories and insights to anyone wishing to lead a similar project. Here’s the full interview:

The Shrine of the Báb - a structure in Haifa, Israel where the remains of the founder of the Bábí Faith, have been buried
  • Can you give us a bit of a background on the course?

The course I teach is introduction to the Bahá'í Faith. The course is usually given in the B.A program of the department is Islamic and Middle East Studies, or the department of Comparative Religion. The Chair in Bahá'í Studies is responsible for the course being given. It is a unique academic programme in the world. It's independent, but works with both departments.

I've been teaching this course for the past seven years. It's an elementary course about the Bahá'í Faith. I usually have about twenty students in their second or third year of their B.A.

The Bahá'í Faith is a small and relatively new religion. It was established in the 19th century in Iran and spread out from there. Despite its Iranian origin, it is considered to be a Western oriented religion. My students know the Bahá'í Temple in Haifa but not much more than that. We cover its history, ceremonies, and its calendar. I teach them about important figures in the history of the Bahá'í Faith. It originated as a group in the Shia Islam. I teach the differences between the Bahá'í Faith and other religions. We talk about how it differes from Shia Islam, for exampe the ideas of Heaven and Hell, the End of the world, and the place of women in society.

The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh near Acre, Israel - the most holy place for Bahá'ís.
  • Why did you decide to have a wikipedia project? What did you hope for?

The idea of letting my students write in Wikipedia was actually inspired by despair. I’ve told my students, for many years, that despite its many advantages (it's accessible and in Hebrew), Wikipedia's notan academic source and is written by people that are not qualified. I told them they can use Wikipedia in the beginning but afterwards they have to go to the Encyclopedia of Islam, or The Encyclopedia of Religions. But all my admonitions were in vain. They used only Wikipedia as their source.

What's more is that the Bahá'í Faith is not covered well in Hebrew Wikipedia, or even in English. There's not enough information on these subjects that is free, available, and reliable. I think that if you have an online free Encyclopedia, and people use it as a main source of knowledge, then it better be correct. Mistakes can move through the generations and then they become impossible to fix.

Also I wasn't happy with the level of writing in my students’ exams. I ask questions and the students just regurgitate my lectures. I can't teach them how to write better. That's not what I teach. I didn't know how this issue can be addressed.

I heard from my brother-in-law, who teaches in Haifa University, that the students there have to write wikipedia articles for credit. I thought to myself, that's not a bad idea. It will enable me to add to this field in wikipedia, make it more reliable. My students will experience "active learning", look for sources and write and not just listen and then regurgitate. It will be a better reading experience for me, and it would give me an excuse to work with them on writing skills.

I thought about it for a while, and then I decided to go for it. While working on the course’s syllabus, I contacted the National Library of Israel, which offers editing course in Wikipedia. That led me to Darya Kantor, an active wikimedian, and then to Shai, the Education program director of the Chapter. Together they gave me the support I needed to run the program.

  • How did the process work? Is an academic course with writing Wikipedia articles similar to the regular teaching format?

First I read a lot about the Baha’i Faith in Wikipedia. I was trying to estimate the situation. There were only few article and mostly on the founders. I made a list of needed new articles, and a list of articles that needed serious revision.

Working with the community, (through the help of the Chapter) I made sure that all of the new articles I wanted to add were appropriate for Hebrew Wikipedia.

In the beginning of the term, Darya Kantor gave us a lecture on Wikipedia. She did so with a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm. Then I asked my students to choose a topic from the list. A student from Canada had suggested his own topic, The Baha’i Community in Canada. I accepted it gladly.

One of the articles that were expanded in Lerer's project is about `Abdu’l-Bahá', the son and successor of Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith.

The course continued regularly. Students needed to read and prepare for the classes. In addition they needed to work on their Wiki article.

Writing for Wikipedia is not like writing a paper. People will see what you write. So it was very important for me that the students are writing well. I set three milestones: The choosing of a subject, Writing an outline, and finding at least two good sources. I sat with each student separately and we checked every line, including the sources. After several weeks each student had a draft, first a basic one, later a completed one. Now we had a second session with Darya Kantor, to upload the drafts into Wikipedia in sandbox form. I went through them again and made my remarks.

I set a deadline for the completion of the entries. I asked each student to email me when are they finished. I checked the editing logs according to the dates the students told me, in order to find the last version the student worked on. The students made the deadlines. I got all of the articles and checked them like I do my regular academic papers.

I took into account that this is not a seminar paper or a research paper, where I would usually expect original research. This is a gathering and organizing information assignment (which is just as important) and so I didn’t look for new research, or creative ideas. I did insist on including good sources that would enable the readers to learn more, and writing in a clear and organized fashion. I insisted on links within Wikipedia, and to other sites in the acceptable manner in Wikipedia.

I was patient with the students because I wanted them to have a good experience. If I was very strict, I would have damaged their learning experience. I gave them a chance to improve their grades if they wanted to. Some of them took that opportunity. This attitude is good for all of us and creates a Win Win situation.

The procedure took a lot of resources but I felt like the students really learned from it.

This addition made the course better-rounded. The students were very pleased. In the teaching survey of the course they said that it was a new, original, and interesting experience. They were glad to have a chance to learn more about writing.

After I gave the grades I still worked on the articles (using my user name .סיון ל) I felt obligated…

Lerer's students have joined a large group of students that experienced editing in Wikipedia during their studies in Isareli universities. This photo represents a parallel project from Haifa University.
  • Including a writing assignment in Wikipedia, is a generally new experience. Naturally is will come with its own set of obstacles. Can you share with us some of your difficulties?

The main obstacle was the quality of the writing. Technology today teaches students to write short messages, without any punctuation. When writing articles you have to use a more official language.

I had students that are not native Hebrew speakers, and that added to the challenge. I couldn’t expect from them the same writing skills as the Hebrew native speakers. I was less strict with them. I fixed some problems without it reflecting on their grades. We also sat together often, thinking about how to word their work.

Some students preferred a strict course with less options. And they didn’t like the gap between my lectures and what they had to write about. Other students saw that as a plus: The chance to write something meaningful and not just to get a grade.

Some students added to existing articles. Some of these articles were short, and so adding to it is easy. Others already had some substantial content, and the students had a difficult time merging what they wanted with what it said in the entry to begin with. They moved paragraphs around and other wikipedians moved them back resulting in editing wars. That diminished from the writing experience. I wouldn’t recommend adding to existing articles, it requires differents skills, such as language editing.

We had our share of frustration. A student asked me why are we bothering. But that’s to be expected when trying new things. The average student wants to get his degree and not always willing to try new things.

  • Do you and your students feel satisfied with this project?

In this project, 18 students created or improved 17 articles which are the basis for learning about the Baha’i faith. As a result, Hebrew Wikipedia has better content regarding the Baha’i Faith and I’m very pleased about that. These new articles are written well and I’m very satisfied when I see them. At the bottom of each entry appears the category and I can click on it to see if it grew. If someone wants to learn more about the subjects through Wikipedia they’ll be able to. That makes me very happy.

I think it was a positive experience for the students. Instead of memorizing, they really learned. They acquired research tools and wrote something for the “real world”. Next time, I’ll be able to direct my students to Wikipedia and tell them that the articles are good (although they can always be improved).

I feel like I was able to improve the quality of their writing. It was a byproduct but when I saw their writing was better, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It was a minor goal, but it meant a lot to me.

Some students said they will continue to edit. After the workshop with Darya, we had another computerized session because I saw they wanted to improve the articles. One student uploaded her entry, sent the link to her family and said: “No one will read my work if I just did a test. But this people will read.” This sense of accomplishment will encourage students to continue.

It’s a win win project: for the teacher, for the students, and for the general public. It’s part of our goal in The Humanities, to share and enhance to knowledge.

Some of the articles that were written (in Hebrew): The Baha’i Holidays , Bahá'í administrative order and Martha Root.

Wikimedia Israel is collaborating with a wide variety of Academic establishments in order to generate free content.

Read more about the Wikipedia Education Program in Israel here.