Improving social capital for learning

13th July 2015 - 30th July 2016

Wikipedia is one of the front line ‘go to’ sources of information that influences and informs contemporary life. Unlike conventional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is continually edited through the unseen actions of over 29 million volunteer editors. Almost anyone with internet access can volunteer to edit, yet people are seldom financially compensated for their work. Rewards are focused around the complex motivations to contribute. These emerging ways of working raise questions about the different ways knowledge can be generated, who contributes, and how they develop the ability to become contributors.

The ability to contribute to, and influence, socially held online knowledge can be viewed as a basic human right. In a democracy everyone should have the ability /responsibility as custodians of collective knowledge. To support people in learning how to edit wiki pages, the Wikimedia Foundation began a programme of editathon events. These events are informal, face-to-face workshops where people learn how to become an editor. This study gives insight into how people learn to become Wikipedia editors, highlighting the emerging roles and responsibilities. Three research questions include:

  • RQ1 Do editathon events support the development of social capital?
  • RQ2 How do people self‐organise learning and knowledge development in an editathon?
  • RQ3 What are the new roles and responsibilities for knowledge emerging within social media spaces?

The concept of social capital plays an increasingly prominent role in analysing and identifying the possible benefits and opportunities of SNS for (informal) learning. The Social network analysis, coupled with interviews, identified that social capital was developed through person-to-person, face-to-face interaction and not online. People tended to seek help from others in the room when encountering a problem or issue when learning. Conversations were helpful for the sharing of information and for the validation of knowledge. Collaboration was less evident online, as one participant would be responsible for making edits to Wikipedia. None of the interview participants had edited other participants’ pages during the Editathon.

The research identified three types of social capital formation among participants: leaders (or initiators), collaborators and those who edited on their own. We discovered participant activity was influenced by a number of factors, some of which were not detected via the digital traces. For example some of those who worked on one page not connected to other people/ pages purposefully selected a wiki page that no one else had agreed to edit.

The study also used a critical approach to explore the editathon as a learning opportunity to increase participants’ awareness of how the Internet, open resources and Wikipedia are shaping how we engage with information and construct knowledge. Qualitative (interview) data was analysed to detail the experiences of nine editathon participants as they became editors. Following on from the initial Social Network Analysis, these participants were selected according to their position in the network. The analysis identified how participants shifted from information consumers to active contributors (editors) during the editathon and how this prompted new understandings of the role and position of the Internet in everyday life. The agency of participants as they became editors was evident in three distinct ways: (1) rewrote history and the development of the female voice on Wikipedia; (2) explored the role of Wikipedia in shaping society’s access to and engagement with information and the interplay of the individual and the collective in developing and owning that knowledge; and (3) positioned traditional media in the Wikipedia digital network.