By Stine Eckert, UMCP*
I learned that the “real” world also happens in academia while “ivory” ideas survive outside despite grinding against obstacles. That ideas work can become visible in the smiling faces of middle school girls learning the basics to write an article for a Wikipedia-like site and enjoying a snack and attention after school. At the same time, “real” world problems of finding time for a grant-funded project, scheduling seven undergraduate, graduate, faculty members and a consultant in one room at one time, and negotiating concrete goals clash with visions on paper. It was the first time I got to implement a project and I learned a lot, perhaps my experiences can help with future projects.
In spring 2013 I had the very valuable opportunity to envision a project that aims to improve the world of information a tiny bit, especially the world of Wikipedia and its dearth of women contributors. Several studies (local and global) have shown a big gender gap for the popular online encyclopedia: only 12 to 15 percent of Wikipedia contributors, i.e. those who write and edit, are women. Other studies showed that because of the dominance of men working on Wikipedia, the content has been skewed toward the interests of those contributing. Combine this with the evidence that this online encyclopedia has become a one-stop shop for looking up quick facts and larger concepts and might well be the last encyclopedia. This mix quickly leads to the question: Who gets to define what counts as knowledge and what not? Why are so few women contributing? How can we help to balance out this gap?
Part of the problem, besides lacking time, is the socialization of girls when it comes to using computers and the internet. While girls and women consume computer content, few women work as programmers, software developers or otherwise behind the scenes to produce computer and internet software and content. Somewhere around middle school girls get the vibe this is not for them, that it’s supposedly a “boy’s thing” to tinker with the insides and back sides of the computer and internet. It’s socialization, it’s stereotypes, it’s expectations. Since all those are involved there’s also a good chance to change them in the long run.
Together with Linda Steiner, professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, UMCP, I developed the idea to teach middle school-aged girls how to write articles on a Wiki in an after school program. We wanted to acquaint them with the production side
of a Wiki but also make them comfortable to express their own interests in their own words toward others. We developed this idea also to compete in the first seed grant competition of the Future of Information Alliance (FIA) at UMCP. FIA is partnering with other institutions in the DC area to make information an “effective resource for everyone.” FIA’s priorities include “InfoEquity,” that is fostering an online environment to close the digital divide and provide opportunities for everyone. In sum, FIA’s goals and ours clicked. It came on the heels of Linda Steiner and me completing two studies on the Wikipedia gender gap. It led us from implementing what we had learned from studying the gap in theory into trying out how to solve it in practice.
The FIA seed grant competition contained different steps over several months: from submitting a detailed proposal; to recruiting team members from at least two different disciplines and including undergraduates, graduates and faculty members; applying for IRB permission; a public presentation; and a final public round announcing the winners. Together with our team members, Kalyani Chadha (professor in Merrill College), Joanna Nurmis (PhD student in Merrill College), Kristen Sabatini (undergraduate student in education), Angel Harris (undergraduate student in computer science), and our consultant Jessica Roberts (Ph.D., Merrill College), we dubbed our project “Wikid GRRLs.”
When the rubber hit the road and Wikid GRRLs won (along with three others) time had rolled into February 2013. While we had set up partnerships with four schools before as part of our proposal, we could not schedule classes and recruit girls to participate until we won, making the project official and providing us with money to fund snacks, certificates and flash drives for about 40 girls as well as gas refunds for one of us five teachers.
We worked with four different schools, the Barrie School (which has worked with FIA and became our official FIA partner), Greenbelt Middle School, Northwestern High School and Sligo Middle School. All schools were enthusiastic about partnering with us, but I could clearly see how schools were limited by the resources they had in terms of human power, technology, and classrooms. While one school had high tech equipment and a beautiful newly built room through which daylight flooded, another school’s classroom for our project initially was dimly lit, without any equipment to play sound or projector to show videos. I quickly learned we have to adapt our curricula to low tech and high tech schools, to make exercises workable without videos, that require sound and functioning loud speakers.
It also took a few weeks to fit an after school spot into the girls’ already existing busy schedule. For other girls unfortunately an after school program didn’t work at all as the school busses just ran once classes were over and their schools and working parents could not provide transportation for them later. Small as it might sound, our idea to provide snacks before starting our program became for some girls a crucial element for getting together as they came hungry to our workshops. I learned that any after school program needs to be in close touch with organizers at participating schools before school starts for the semester to learn about these school specifics. While some schools can afford a point person with ample time to arrange and trouble shoot, others depend on a very dedicated teacher who is already working overtime and shouldering other responsibilities but who loves to help out but is limited in what he/she can do.
While these conditions differed from school to school and sometimes week to week, the IRB procedure was the same for all girls and schools. FIA was very helpful to me starting with the IRB early on. Nevertheless it took a couple of months to get the permission to ask the girls to fill out a pre- and post-workshop survey to help us assess what worked and what didn’t work in our curriculum. It also remained a challenge to collect signatures from all girls and all parents as sometimes the teachers distributed and collected them, girls and parents turned them in to other teachers or e-mailed them. This was also connected to girls joining later or dropping out of our workshops. In sum, the keeping track of everyone, organizing and bureaucracy to establish and run the workshops for the first time took up the biggest share of my time. The teaching itself was the cream on top and it was a joy to see the girls benefit from all our background work.
It was equally challenging to time meetings during which all six team members and our consultant could meet. Often we used Skype for one or two members to join a meeting to discuss our teaching going forward, to hear how everyone experienced their school and girls, and to adjust our ideas. But I also learned that when recruiting team members it is crucial that everyone understands how much time a person can put into a project if it comes through and the rubber hits the road. Or as one member said, “Okay, now we actually have to do this thing.” While graduate students and faculty members might have more flexible schedules to arrange their heavy workloads, undergraduate students have more rigid schedules with fixed classes. Nevertheless, it is also important that each member understands participating means actively contributing and closely communicating.
Part of our project was to collect feedback from each teaching session on a blog hosted by UMCP. Unfortunately, UMCP currently faces trouble online and our blog has been taken down without us having a chance to save our content beforehand or knowing at the time of this writing if our Wikid GRRLS blog will run again. It’s a stark reminder that technology is fickle and that it is an excellent idea to mirror a project blog on a site hosted by another company. Another alternative is to save reflections from each group member also on a shared document. We did use Google Docs to share teaching lessons and reflections. But I also learned that some group members were more committed to posting regularly and creatively than others and that motivating and appealing can only go so far.
FIA has been very supportive of Wikid GRRLs providing quick feedback whenever we had a question. I would like to thank the entire FIA team again for making Wikid GRRLs possible and to teach me that ideas can leave the academy to affect the real world. This fall semester FIA is running its second round of the seed grant competition. FIA has listened to the feedback of the first round participants to make the competition even better, and I encourage everyone to take up this chance to push your ideas from the academy into practice. Gather some committed diverse minds, team up and go wild in your mind. Then try it out, learn, and redo!
The deadline to apply for the current FIA Seed Grant is November 11, 2013. You can find more details on its website: http://www.fia.umd.edu/seedgrants/
*Stine Eckert is completing her doctoral work in the UMCP Philip Merrill College of Journalism.