At the end of the summer in 2017, in Trento, a city in Northern Italy, a group of teachers, digital right activists and members of the local Wikipedia community came together to organize a course dedicated to teaching to recently arrived asylum seekers how to contribute to Wikipedia in their own languages. The initiative, called Wikipedia4Refugees, was born after a two years long experience in teaching digital literacy classes to groups of migrants, in which the teachers noticed the enthusiasm the students – mostly from western Africa and southern Asia and with no or little formal education – showed when they learned they could read the encyclopaedia not only in Italian, French of English, but also in their own native languages.
Thanks to a small grant from the Wikimedia Foundation – an organization that supports grassroots initiatives in and around the community of Wikipedia contributors – and the logistic support of the local university, the course started in October 2017. The students were first shown the functioning of Wikipedia and of its system of open contributions, in which everybody, after creating an account, can modify an existing article or add one anew, provided that it respects the rules that the community gave itself. Then, they were guided in the process of selecting one article from the Italian version of the online encyclopaedia. Articles could be about refugees rights, the organization of Italian civic society, or local cultural heritage. After making sure these articles had no counterpart in the Wikipedia edition of the students’ native languages (Fula, Bambarà, Pashto, and Urdu), the translation work began. After a few weeks, the students were ready to publish their articles.
The project was highly experimental, as it combined innovative teaching methods (based on the active participation of the students and on the use of activities offline to convey principles related to the online), an alternative use of the Internet (based on active, high-quality participation) and contamination between very different cultures for what concerns the way information is created, received, and interpreted (using Wikipedia as a reliable media source and working to improve it.) The objective was primarily to make the students aware of their power as creators of information and involve them in a collaborative effort of knowledge-building – one in which everyone has the same voice and there is no distinction between being a migrant or a local, speaking Italian or an African language. An added challenge was the degree of technical knowledge required to be able to contribute to Wikipedia: the students knew how to use a computer, but had to learn the special language in which Wikipedia pages are built.
One of the most interesting moments of the course was to compare the different ways authority plays a role in the creation of information. During an in-class discussion on the way consensus is reached regarding what can and cannot live on Wikipedia – especially in case of controversial articles –, many students were surprised to learn that there is no central authority deciding on these matters, but that decisions are reached through the continuous interaction among the members of the community. After an expert Wikipedia user was struggling to describe the process to the class, one of the students stood up and asked, sincerely baffled: “All this is all good and right, but in the end: who has the Truth”? We, the teachers, had no answer. But it reminded us that it is the questions we keep on asking ourselves, beyond any cultural, political or territorial barrier that make us all fundamentally human.