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Was introducing Wikipedia to the classroom an act of madness leading only to mayhem if not murder?

Reflections on the use of Wikipedia in the University of British Columbia's course SPAN312, "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation," Spring 2008.

(This essay has now been translated into French as "Introduction de Wikipédia dans les salles de classe : le loup est-il dans la bergerie?".)

Wikipedia: unloved but ubiquitous in academia[edit]

At present, Wikipedia hovers at the fringes of academia, like an uninvited guest. Wikipedia's aims are eminently academic, concerned with collecting, processing, storing, and transmitting knowledge. Judging by the number of the site's articles and readers, it has been remarkably successful at promoting a culture of intellectual inquiry. Yet it is fairly consistently derided by academics themselves.

Still, everybody uses it, in one way or another, even if they might want not to admit to the fact. Above all, our students use it, openly or otherwise (as they are often explicitly told not to cite Wikipedia articles in term papers), but without necessarily knowing how it works. They are told that Wikipedia is bad, but they are not often told why; and of course, they find it an incredibly useful resource.

Assignment: to create a featured article[edit]

I decided to include Wikipedia as a central part of a course I was teaching in the belief that it was only by actively contributing to the encyclopedia that students would learn about its weaknesses, as well as its strengths. And also with the idea that they would thereby, and perhaps rather incidentally, improve articles in a field (Latin American literature) in which in my experience Wikipedia has been especially weak.

Wikipedia was to occupy a central part of the course, but it was not to be the centre itself. This was not a course about Wikipedia but rather, as with my other courses, its focus would continue to be on Latin America and on the reading of a set number of Latin American literary texts. In this case, a course entitled "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem," these texts were a series of dictator novels, by authors ranging from the nineteenth-century Argentine Domingo Sarmiento to the contemporary stars of Latin American letters, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. These books are neither short nor simple; most of the students' time would be spent reading these hefty tomes, and most of the class time spent explaining and discussing them.

So there was little direct discussion of Wikipedia in the classroom. Rather, the assignment was that, in groups, the students should edit (and in a couple of cases create) Wikipedia articles on the texts and authors that we were covering, and that over the course of the semester they should bring these articles up to what in Wikipedia parlance is called "featured article" status.

When setting that assignment, I had not really comprehended how ambitious it was. Wikipedia defines a "featured article" as an article that "exemplifies [its] very best work and features professional standards of writing and presentation." And its standards are, in fact, impressively high. Indeed, it is a central paradox of Wikipedia that its standards are impeccable, even as its actual performance so often lags far behind these standards. To give some indication: fewer than 0.1% of Wikipedia's articles are featured articles.

Indeed, as far as I can tell, while Wikipedia has been the subject of numerous educational assignments, from universities as far apart as Sydney, Hong Kong, Minnesota, and Leiden, this would be the first time in which students were explicitly asked to create featured articles.

Initial considerations: the advantages of Wikipedia[edit]

In addition to teaching (somewhat indirectly) students the weaknesses as well as benefits of Wikipedia, as well as (perhaps incidentally) improving the encyclopedia's coverage of Latin American issues, there were other, more positive, reasons justifying my choice of assignment.

I liked the idea that students would be engaging in a real world project, with tangible and public, if not necessarily permanent, effects. In the end, an essay or an exam is an instance of busywork: usually written in haste; for one particular reader, the professor; and thereafter discarded.

It is a lamentable fact that, with rare exceptions such as in the Composition classroom, students are seldom motivated to re-read and reflect upon their own work. Indeed, they often scarcely even glance at the comments professors laboriously write up on their work: understandably given that there is usually by this stage no chance to change things further, they are interested in the grade, and that is it. Students seldom learn about the importance of revision to good writing. And yet on Wikipedia, revision is (almost) everything: contributors are called editors precisely because their writing is a near-constant state of revision.

Moreover, here they would be contributing to pages that in some instances (the article on Gabriel García Márquez, for instance) received over 60,000 page views per month. Even the least visited articles they were writing receive several hundred monthly visits. Here they would be writing for a public audience, also one that almost uniquely was in a position to write back, to re-write and comment upon what they were writing. Indeed, working on Wikipedia had the potential to become a collaborative process: students would have to collaborate not only with each other, but also with fellow editors or wikipedians who they met only on the wiki itself.

Finally, I liked the notion that the grade that they would receive for this assignment would come from outside the class itself; that their work would be judged by its external impact, and not by the professor's personal judgement (however professional that might be). I declared from the outset that a group that turned its article into a "featured article" would receive an A+, no questions asked; and that groups that achieved "good article" status (a lower hurdle, though good articles still account for only about 0.15% of Wikipedia's total) would receive an A. The assignment grade, in other words, would be determined by collective, public, peer review.

Initial considerations: potential pitfalls[edit]

I have to admit that I had not really considered too many possible pitfalls to the plan. I recognized it was a bit of an experiment, but was happy to give it a go. In any case, this was not the course's sole assignment or method of evaluation: students would also have to write weekly blogs on their reading; there was a midterm; and also a final paper.

(Later in fact I dispensed with the final paper, but only after a secret and anonymous ballot among all the students, for which I said that change would only be made if two-thirds of the class agreed; in the end 85% voted in favor of scrapping the final paper and so expanding the role given to Wikipedia in the final assessment.)

My one fear was that students might end up in unconstructive and even perhaps discouraging edit wars. An edit war is, in essence, a pushme-pullyou debate between editors who cannot agree as to what should be in an article. Quickly, as elsewhere in online interactions, such disagreements can become bad-tempered and provoke the intervention of Wikipedia administrators who may decide to "block" one or both of the offending individuals. I knew this all too well as, in an exploratory foray on Wikipedia a few months prior to the class, I had found myself (usually inadvertently) caught up in such wars, and had even once been blocked for a while.

There is always a danger to allowing students to interface directly with the public sphere. And we have a duty of care to them in some way, which is perhaps why so much educational technology (above all WebCT) is sealed off from the "real world." Plus it would hardly be productive were one of my students prevented from continuing his or her assignment thanks to a Wikipedia block! I crossed my fingers and hoped that this eventuality would not occur.

First steps: "our" project begins[edit]

I was not a complete newbie to Wikipedia; indeed, I had made a number of edits and created several articles, though these were mostly what are called "stubs," that is short, preliminary versions of articles. I had not really previously worked in sustained fashion on a Wikipedia article. But I felt I more or less knew my way around, and had a sense of Wikipedia culture, even though I was (and to be honest often still am) baffled by some of the more arcane technical and procedural details in what is by now a labyrinthine behemoth of an enterprise.

On the other hand, therefore, I felt I could sympathize with the students' likely sense of intimidation at the task before them. Only one or two students had ever edited Wikipedia before. Few showed much sign of particular sophistication with web markup and the like, let alone Wikipedia's special (albeit simplified) brand of code. I felt I could appreciate their mystification when, having probably for the first time clicked the button marked "edit this page" that is the hallmark of wiki software, they came across a confusing mass of indecipherable squiggles.

To establish some kind of framework, and to seek support, I registered the project at a Wikipedia page dedicated to such things, indicated on each article included within the project that it was part of an educational assignment, and constructed a "project page" outlining our goals. I also left messages at various other related Wikipedia projects (which are basically groups of Wikipedia editors who focus on a particular topic such as literature or South America), even dropped a note at the encyclopedia's in-house newspaper, the Wikipedia Signpost, announced the project in class, asked students to register an account with Wikipedia, and more or less sat back and hoped for the best.

You may notice that I have been talking about "our" project and "our" goals. I usually try to use such inclusive language in class: "we" are reading the texts "together"; "we" are trying to figure out how to interpret them. But here the sensation was quite palpable: from quite early on I felt that I was on the line also with this project; and this feeling would only grow stronger in subsequent weeks.

First lesson: "this may be deleted"[edit]

Early on in the semester, at a point by which everyone had now been expected to register and begin experimenting with editing, I brought my computer to class and went through some of the basics. Hooked up to a projection unit, I showed the students on the big screen where the "edit" tab was, how to make a minor edit (I changed one word on our own university's Wikipedia article), and how to make a more major edit (I stubified the page of an article associated with the university, which was manifestly plagiarized from an external website).

Then one student asked me to show them how to create a new page. Two of the articles they were working on did not exist at the outset, so I created one of them: El Señor Presidente, which started off containing as its sole text "El Señor Presidente is the title of a novel by Miguel Ángel Asturias." I then moved on to some other page, before coming back to the new page just a couple of minutes later... and this was the first lesson. For I discovered to some embarrassment (and in front of the entire class) that within sixty seconds some other Wikipedia editor had already pasted a huge pink banner on our freshly-minted page that said "This page may meet Wikipedia’s criteria for speedy deletion." "The bastards!" I said under my breath, and proceeded hurriedly to change the article's content to "El Señor Presidente is the title of the most important novel by Nobel-prize-winning novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias," anxious that our little project would not be sunk before it had barely begun.

But of course if I had actively wanted to teach the students that editing Wikipedia was an exercise in negotiating with an entire community of fellow readers and editors, I could hardly have chosen a better way to do it. I have discovered (since) that for other educational assignments on Wikipedia, often students have been encouraged to draft their articles away from the public gaze, and to upload them to the encyclopedia's public pages only once they were ready for general scrutiny. Here everything has been open and exposed from the start. But I don't regret this in the slightest. Indeed, it has allowed, I think, for some of the project's greatest strengths...

The FA-Team: synergy, good and bad[edit]

For it was not long before we stumbled across our first, and by far the most important, piece of good luck. Though nothing came of my messages to the various pre-existing Wikipedia projects (most of which, as far as I can see, are defunct or, more likely, simply overwhelmed), it so happened that a small group of experienced Wikipedia editors had apparently been kicking around ideas as to how best to increase the number of featured articles on the encyclopedia. They were calling themselves the "FA-Team" and they were looking for a project to work on. They found us, and wrote to see if we would like any help.

Would we like any help? Absolutely!

The FA-Team divided up the project's articles between themselves, wrote welcome messages on each of the students' user pages (which are personal pages assigned to every registered user of Wikipedia, functioning as places where editors can talk directly to each other), and embarked on an ongoing task of encouraging, mentoring, and guiding all of us in the process of editing Wikipedia articles to a high standard. These were (and are) a very meticulous, dedicated, and above all generous bunch of people.

And the FA-Team manifested what is, I now realize, the greatest strength (if also perhaps the greatest weakness) of Wikipedia: synergy. Wikipedia editors are attracted to activity. Moreover, they are particularly attracted to activity that involves the input of new content to the encyclopedia. A case in point is the flag that I had received upon creating a new page: there is a whole cadre of Wikipedia volunteers who keep their eyes tirelessly on page creations, ready to pounce should an inappropriate or unencyclopedic topic be proposed. Anyone can create a page on Wikipedia, but if you create one about yourself, your garage band, or your cat, it is likely to be deleted at lightning speed.

Equally, though many (most notably perhaps, the US comedian Stephen Colbert) have criticized Wikipedia for the fact that anybody can add nonsensical content to any article, they most likely do not realize that there are squads of dedicated Wikipedians watching recent changes to the encyclopedia, who will swiftly eliminate patent rubbish.

But the more constructive side to this rapid-response aspect of Wikipedia also revealed itself when, within a couple of days of my creating El Señor Presidente, a whole number of other editors had made minor but collectively significant formatting changes. A student then added a snippet of content that they had found on another website. More formatting followed. So that by the very next class, that article now looked like most other Wikipedia pages: a little on the short side, rather incomplete, with a couple of half-random internet sources, but informing its reader at least minimally about its topic; and now integrated into the greater Wikipedia enterprise.

(I should note that I was not much concerned if the final product of the students' assignment was not "all their own work"; I considered that persuading others to work with them, and working well with others, was an integral part of the operation. Of course, one could imagine somebody cheating in this assignment, as in any other: for instance by paying some third party to write the article for them. But in general, in fact, the wiki software, which tracks each user's contributions, allows for unrivalled transparency as to what students are doing, step by step, and how much, and when.)

In a sense, then, the FA-Team's intervention was not exceptional. It was simply a broader and rather more developed instance of this same principle of synergy, of the fact that the more you add to Wikipedia, the more your activity resonates and is developed and multiplied by the activities of others. Yes, there are edit wars; but in my experience these do not on the whole revolve around the addition of new content. We had not simply struck lucky; we'd come across one of the basic principles of the wiki's operation.

The downside of this principle is that where Wikipedia is moribund, it stays moribund. Though in theory Wikipedia is an endless hive of activity, in practice a glance at the histories of a few pages (all of which are easily available for consultation, at the click of a few more tabs) demonstrates that they are in fact remarkably stable. A bad article remains a bad article for a long, long time. To take a couple of instances from this project of older (and so in fact more important) topics: the entries for Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have scarcely moved for years, bar a tweak here and a tweak there. Our job was to change this.

Research: and then research again[edit]

This was, then, a research assignment. The students' task was to find what in Wikipedia jargon are termed "reliable sources." One of the encyclopedia's fundamental (if, to an academic's ears, peculiarly named) tenets is that there should be "no original research." What is meant by this in fact is that an encyclopedia entry should not be the place to develop an argument. This is the most fundamental difference between a more traditional essay assignment and Wikipedia.

As the FA-Team had taken it upon themselves to supervise issues of formatting and procedure, students were freed up to devote themselves to research. Here, however, lay another unexpected pitfall, though it perhaps should not have been so very unexpected as its cause lay at the very heart of the Wikipedia assignment. Indeed, the assignment itself was aimed directly at the very problem that has perhaps most stymied it: the fact that students fail sufficiently to evaluate their sources.

For after all, the premise of the project was that students had been using Wikipedia as a source without properly considering its drawbacks. So it should have come as no surprise then that when seeking sources for the articles they were writing, again all too often they should make the same mistakes. They would add information that was unsourced, poorly referenced (and too frequently even plagiarized), or cited from what were often enough merely other webpages and online encyclopedias.

Yet here lay also one of the great benefits of the assignment. Precisely because of Wikipedia's injunction (oft-repeated by the various members of the FA-team) that every item in their article had to be referenced, students were forced to reveal their sources. These poor sources came to light in a way that they might well not have were they writing a term paper. Moreover, precisely because writing on Wikipedia is a process of continual revision, they could be asked to go back and re-evaluate their sources, find better ones, and try again. Even with plagiarism, there was no longer the need to make a song and dance about it, because at no time were they handing in what purported to be a final product.

In short, the assignment is bringing out the weaknesses in students' research skills, but then those weaknesses are its very presupposition. However, it is also teaching them those skills, teaching them that research (like writing) is a process, often a lengthy one, whereby you might start with suboptimal sources (such indeed as Wikipedia itself) but then progress to look for ever better evidence for the information at hand, or for new information that those first sources do not necessarily reveal.

Other observations: a professional piece of work[edit]

I'm writing this in what is still the throes of the project. One article, perhaps ironically the very one that I started in class, has passed its first formal, and I should say remarkably stringent, peer review hurdle and so has been named a "good article." My students have therefore already created, and created from scratch, part of Wikipedia's best 0.15% content. Moreover, there are no other Latin American literary works among that 0.15%. So they have contributed what is now the very best Wikipedia article on any work of Latin American literature. They (we?) can be rightly proud.[1]

As far as I am aware, this is the only educational assignment on Wikipedia ever to have directly contributed a "good article."[2]

Of course, not everything has been plain sailing. A couple of the articles have not so far progressed very much at all. The dream of creating twelve new featured articles will remain, most likely, but a dream. (Though imagine: it would mean that the entire class would be awarded an A+ for what is now 40% of the course assessment.) But I am confident that we will emerge with a spate of other good articles (two others are currently up for review), some of which will be nominated at least for featured article status. That is a rigorous test; this is far from being an easy option of an assignment just because it takes place on that much reviled beast of a website, Wikipedia. If anything, quite the reverse.

And I am still far from starry-eyed about Wikipedia. Again, imagine an encyclopedia in which only a small fraction of one per cent of the entries are what even its own editors categorize as "good." Other of Wikipedia's weaknesses are also more apparent than ever, and even to some extent replicated within this project: the tendency for what is already moribund to remain that way; and the reliance upon weak sources, often plagiarized.

But in favour of Wikipedia, I should say that I had not previously realized how high its own standards are, how rigorously they are applied, as well as how well its synergistic processes can work... if you are prepared to contribute your own activity and, above all, do the requisite research to add properly sourced content. Again, I should also mention that we have been very fortunate with the particular individuals that we have come across; though I suspect that that fortune is likely to be encountered by others, too.

As for the assignment, which is again far from over... I'd like to think that it is teaching the students research skills and writing skills in what is very much a real world environment. They were set a medium- to long-term goal at the beginning of the semester, and were required to work collaboratively both within their own groups and with strangers in the public domain to plan how to achieve and deliver that goal. And their final product is to be a professional piece of work that will be viewed by many thousands of people, a resource that is in most cases the first port of call for future researchers, whether students like themselves or any of the many millions from all over the world who visit Wikipedia. Most of these articles are, after all, the top hit (or very close to it) in any internet search of the topic.

By comparison, the usual essays and exams that we assign our students really are rather pointless busywork.

Pointless? No argument[edit]

The one skill that this project does not teach the students is how to construct an argument. And of course, argumentation, the development of a coherent series of points, the production and defence of a cogent thesis, is indeed at the core of the academic enterprise. I value that skill very highly.

But one could argue that for most of the occupations that most of these students will be entering after they finish their time in academia, argumentation is not in fact so important as it is in the academy itself. Information gathering, presentation, meticulousness, teamwork, and the ability to negotiate with the public sphere are (I hesitate perhaps to admit) much more useful to them.

Moreover, writing Wikipedia does instill critical thinking, if not of the variety that is usually most explicitly addressed at university--though perhaps it should be. Wikipedia's editors are endlessly encouraged to think critically about the information that they come across, and also about their own writing and self-presentation.

I worry a little that I have praised this assignment too much. I would do it differently if (when) I do it again. I should certainly admit that I have often felt that it's been something of a high-wire act, in which anything might go wrong at any minute. It still may do so. In which case, I can always go back and edit this text...

Oh, and in the meantime please feel free to help out at Murder, Madness, and Mayhem!

(First draft, March 18, 2008)


  1. ^ On April 10, El Señor Presidente became Wikipedia's 2000th Featured Article. This article will be on Wikipedia's main page on May 5. And by the end of the project, the students had brought two further articles up to Featured standard (Mario Vargas Llosa and The General in His Labyrinth, plus another eight to Good Article standard. The only other Latin American literary topics at this standard are Mário de Andrade and Jorge Luis Borges (though probably neither of these would make the grade now; it's notable that in fact Wikipedia's standards are steadily rising over time). So we have effected an exponential increase in the number of quality articles about Latin American culture.
  2. ^ See the clarification here.