Education/News/June 2021/Children writing for an encyclopedia – is it possible?

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Can children write articles for a wiki encyclopedia?

Author: Ziko van Dijk

Summary: The Klexikon is a wiki encyclopedia for children. Adults write quality content for children age 8 to 13 years. Is it possible for children to contribute? After several years we now have made a positive experience. Under certain circumstances, it is indeed possible that children in a school class write draft texts that become quality articles.

In the past years, there have been several attempts to involve children in the production of a wiki encyclopedia. In some cases, (older) children have been asked to write texts for Wikipedia, in other cases, children have contributed to wikis especially created for children. (See a list on Meta Wiki for wikis for children.) The Klexikon, a German wiki encyclopedia, differs from some other projects as its primary goal is creating quality content for children, not being a platform for children learning how to write wiki content.

Dutch stroopwafels: the Klexikon shares the same traditional dish with Wikipedia.

Many people believe that a wiki for children should be automatically a wiki written by children – because a wiki is understood to be a website "written by its readers". The reality of Wikipedia begs to differ: only a very small permille of the Wikipedia readers does contribute. Also, as my Klexikon colleague Michael Schulte uses to say:

"Children’s literature is not written by children [but by grownups such as J. K. Rowling or Astrid Lindgren], so why would you expect children to write an encyclopedia?"

With regard to children (age 8-13) and wikis, there are three main problems:

  • Children cannot cooperate with adults on eye-level. Children and adults cannot, even in a volunteer community, truly be partners or friends. The relationship between children and adults is always a kind of caretakership and/or supervision. The fragile position of a child in society does not fit with the traditional role of a wiki community member who is supposed to be independent and resilient.
  • An internet platform for children must be safe. This includes that children are not confronted with potentially harmful content and that they are not contacted by adults in an inappropriate way. Especially in a totally open wiki (where everyone can edit without registration), it is difficult to create such an environment.
  • Children lack the communicative and productive skills you need as a wiki community member. They are not yet competent writers who can autonomously write a draft article and discuss it with others.

Therefore, we at the Klexikon hesitated to give children a Klexikon account.

Our earlier experiences with children[edit]

For example, there was a girl of age 9. My colleague Michael established contact with the parents, and we invited her to write a draft about a topic of her choice (from our list of accepted new lemmata). It turned out that she wrote a short draft about a topic and then a new draft about another topic and again another one. The drafts become shorter and less substantiated.

We asked her to stop creating new draft pages and instead concentrate on the first one. Carefully we tried to make her, by asking questions, reflect on her draft text and improve it. The girl stopped editing the wiki immediately – maybe this kind of working on texts was not was she had expected (and this is true for many adults as well, because they don’t understand that a wiki is not just a platform for publishing content but a collaboration platform.).

In some cases, teachers had children of their school classes write draft texts. Then, the teacher created the draft pages in the Klexikon. We have detected the following typical problems:

  • Many texts had a poor textual structure. We read the main clause after the main clause without much coherence between them.
  • Often a sentence was suspiciously well-formed and elaborate. The teachers confirmed our assumption that the child more or less copied the sentence from a book without understanding it. In some cases, we detected blatant plagiarism and had to delete the whole page.
  • Sometimes we were unsure even about the facts in a text. It turned out that the child had misunderstood the original material or expressed the idea wrongly.

We learned from these experiments that children cannot be Klexikon writers. Their draft articles are such that we practically had to rewrite the whole text. Including the communication with the teachers, this approach took us more time and work than simply writing the texts ourselves. From my experiences, it seemed that only teenagers of age 16 and above possess the basic skills to write Klexikon articles.

How it can work[edit]

Our opinion changed in February 2021. A German teacher, Martin Walter based in Freiburg (Baden-Württemberg), had created a three-week course for his students of German, age 10-11 years. In each week, he had four (school) hours to invest. In these 12 hours, he first introduced the children to the way how the Klexikon works, had them search for information about a topic, and write a draft page in the internal moodle of the school (in groups of two or three students).

Then he published the texts in the actual Klexikon draft namespace. The Klexikon community members commented on the texts, and the pupils improved the texts. The teacher published the revised versions. This worked astonishingly well, to the great satisfaction of everybody involved.

In an interview with me, Martin explained the key factors for this success:

  • Martin had close contact with my colleague Michael and had become an experienced Klexikon collaborator. He said to me that without this direct contact, it would have been hardly possible to create his course.
  • The children already knew the Klexikon as readers, they used it in school to look something up. They already thought positively about the website, and they had met Michael. This was important for their positive identification with the website.
  • The teacher provided the pupils with source materials to look things up, to gather information about a topic. The pupils first collected information with bullet points. Only later they created full sentences on the basis of the bullet points. Martin: "This is key for the learning process."
  • In the article creation process, they saw that texts evolve. Receiving feedback and implementing it in the draft text was part of the course. Therefore they were not frustrated that their texts were changed or commented on by (foreign) adults.
  • Martin was very much aware of the plagiarism issue and discussed it with the pupils.
  • In some cases, it was still quite a lot of work to make a draft text/article ready for publication. It all depends on the language competencies of the pupils.

To Martin, the course was a very positive experience and useful for the children. He did have some ideas to improve the course in the future or make it more likely that other teachers follow the example:

  • A prepared learning unit would be useful.
  • The pupils should receive a “Klexikon diploma” for their contributions.
  • A cooperation with teachers from other subjects (e.g. biology) is an option. Such cooperations between teachers for different subjects are welcome in the German school system but rare as they take additional efforts for coordination.

To summarize the lessons learned: it is indeed possible to have children write useful drafts that can be made articles without too much work from the Klexikon community members. But it needs a learning unit that is well thought out – and a dedicated teacher who is familiar with the wiki.

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