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Digitization at universitiesWikipedia article instead of housework

Does it really always have to be housework? University teaching could actually use something new, thought Friederike Elias, sociologist at the University of Heidelberg. Together with her colleague Christian Vater, a philosopher, the 39-year-old researches how knowledge is documented and passed on. And together they asked themselves: How about if the students wrote a Wikipedia article instead of a term paper? They implemented their idea almost two years ago.

"The writing process takes much longer than with normal housework," reports Elias of the experience with the new form of performance assessment. The articles, for example on sociological and philosophical aspects of love, on the theory of digital media or on the keyword “collective identity” were created in exercises accompanying the seminar. "Then there were several review processes, and there were always revisions and improvements," says the sociologist. No wonder, after all, the Wikipedia community is extremely open to discussion: anyone who publishes a text here can count on extensive - and critical - feedback.

“Academics have to get involved in public discussions and face criticism,” says Elias. A lexicon entry is a seldom practiced, but nevertheless scientific text form that enables exactly that. And because Wikipedia is a public encyclopedia that is digitally available on the internet, it is a suitable proof of achievement for students. Otherwise, says the sociologist, who works in the Collaborative Research Center “Material Text Cultures”, the effects of digitization on universities are often still manageable. "A lot of things with the label 'digital' are not really new, but often just represent a transformation of familiar things into new media."  

"Because of the public visibility and the need to express oneself in a short, yet understandable and correct manner, the students reflected much more on their own writing." (Friederike Elias)

For example, e-learning on the Moodle platform used at many universities is often limited to service offers: "In the past there was a reserve in the library as a copy template, today the texts are available for download." Elias wants to try out more with her colleagues: "We try to encourage students to build their own databases, exchange their content and use digital communication forums." In doing so, they also familiarize students with modern management techniques, such as the Scrum method for the step-by-step, flexible development of project results, based largely on the impulses of the actors - in this case the students.

Elias does not have ready-made recipes for a digital university teaching. “I am constantly rethinking my own teaching methods,” says the sociologist. It is important to her to involve students more closely in planning processes and to see herself not as a knowledge mediator, but as a learning companion. A research seminar on the topic of “Challenges for Organizations in the Digital Age”, which she conceived together with Elizangela Valarini, shows what this can look like in practice: Six students are researching how University 4.0 can be designed with a view to digitization and personnel development . In interviews with researchers and the personnel development department at Heidelberg University, they want to investigate which requirements actually exist in the course of digitization at universities and how these can be met **.

In any case, the Wikipedia experiment gave Elias courage. “Because of the public visibility and the need to express oneself briefly and yet clearly and correctly, the students reflected much more on their own writing.” The production of text and knowledge has thus been permanently changed: “It has definitely proven itself! "