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Tsolin Nalbantian receives Comenius grant: 'We must bridge the gap between education and society'

In academia, the mention of Wikipedia might be met with suspicion. However, for Tsolin Nalbantian, university lecturer Modern Middle Eastern Studies, the encyclopedia is an opportunity to broaden the skills of her students and to increase public knowledge. She received a Teaching Comenius Fellowship to develop a manual and modules on how to integrate Wikipedia into curricula.

Nalbantian was overjoyed when she heard she got the grant. ‘It is a really cool opportunity to expand my idea. I tried out the project on a smaller scale in one of my classes before I applied for the grant.’ She let the students write or edit Wikipedia entries related to the topics they were studying. ‘My students were intrigued and motivated about it. It made the atmosphere in the classroom more dynamic and exciting.’

Workshops with experts

The plan is to expand upon this method. ‘Where the grant really comes into play are the workshops with experts that I will set up. Various experts that are based in the Middle East will give lectures to students, and with that information they will be better equipped to make edits in their entries.’

There is also a part of the project that is more aimed at lecturers. ‘I do not want it be a one-time thing,’ Nalbantian says. ‘By creating a manual and modules, I hope my colleagues will incorporate the use of open access forums such as Wikipedia in their lectures. I do not expect people to exactly duplicate the module, but I want the idea of educators and students contributing to open access forums outside of academia to continue. We are part of a public institution and have the duty to make higher education less insular.’

Empowering students

The idea came about after a casual conversation with a colleague who uses a similar approach to Wikipedia. ‘I thought, what if I could do something similar?’ Nalbantian recalls. ‘A lot of our students will not remain in academia. As educators, we should train them in a variety of skills that are pragmatic and realistic.’

Nalbantian believes it can also empower students in a different way. ‘They are actually writing and producing something that is not limited to the academic community,’ she says. ‘They can say: I wrote that Wikipedia entry and everyone can read it! That is different than writing a final paper that only I get to read.’

Bridging the gap

After scrolling through Wikipedia, she realised her idea could also benefit the public. ‘I noticed that some entries about the Middle East are great but some of them are not. Entries are, for example, outdated or not sophisticated enough. The Middle East is in the news, so that means that people who are not experts probably want to know more about it,’ Nalbantian explains. ‘I would rather people learn from my students who are actively learning about the Middle East than from someone who does not know what they are talking about.’

By bringing these things together, she wants to bridge the gap between the university and the public. ‘At the end of the day, the university is a public institution. I think we have the responsibility to connect to society.’

A long-lasting impact

The project runs for a year and a half, but Nalbantian hopes its impact will last longer than that. ‘My hope is that besides the Wikipedia entries still being there, that the manual and the modules will be incorporated into my colleagues’ curricula in some modified form,’ she says. ‘Who knows what the future holds? If there are any other opportunities to expand the project even further, maybe with other universities or departments – not necessarily related to the humanities – I think that would be very exciting as well.’

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