Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-05-09/Dispatches

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Featured content from schools and universities

By Jbmurray and Tony1, 9 May 2008
If used strategically, Wikipedia has significant potential to enrich the learning process in degree courses and at schools.

Two university projects in short succession have shown strikingly different outcomes with respect to the relationship between Wikipedia and educational institutions. As reported in the April 14 edition of the Signpost, the Murder, Madness, and Mayhem project produced three featured articles and eight good articles over the course of a college semester. These included the very first example of featured content created as part of an educational assignment—an article on the Guatemalan novel El Señor Presidente—which was displayed on the main page on May 5.

By contrast, the past few days have seen a rather less successful attempt to integrate Wikipedia into the college curriculum: as discussed at length at the Administrators’ noticeboard, a professor teaching a class in Global Economics asked his students to upload their essays to the encyclopedia, but these have in the main been swiftly deleted, merged, or redirected. Of 70 newly created articles, about half were deleted, many were merged or redirected, only seven have survived in anything like their original form, and only one (Organ trade) is free of cleanup tags. The question is whether future projects can be more like Murder, Madness and Mayhem, and avoid the mistakes of the Global Economics foray.

History of educational projects on Wikipedia

These two extremes are not the first educational projects on Wikipedia. Over the past five years, more than 70 such initiatives have been registered at Wikipedia:School and university projects, from institutions as diverse as Yale University and the University of Tartu, Estonia, on topics ranging from immunology to Ancient Rome. It is likely that for each registered project, many more are conducted without formal registration. Two years ago, the Signpost reported that Wikipedia classroom assignments were on the rise; as more academics and teachers recognize the learning potential of basing assignments on their students' active engagement with Wikipedia, this trend is probably increasing significantly. Advice and support for teachers and students is available from WikiProject Classroom Coordination.

Not all of these undertakings have aimed at producing featured content; there are many possible productive ways in which Wikipedia can aid student learning. The structure and aims of Wikipedia-related learning experiences have varied significantly, and have included writing one article or many, and learning about "the chaos and joy of collaborative editing" (The University of Hong Kong) and "becom[ing] familiar with wikipedia as a community and as a knowledge resource" (The College of Idaho).

Creating featured content

But what can schools and universities contribute to Wikipedia? One of the encyclopedia's goals is to provide articles of professional quality, and featured articles are defined as "exemplif[ying] our very best work". The novelty of Murder, Madness, and Mayhem was its explicit objective of increasing the number of featured articles. Could other schools and universities follow suit?

The Internet is now a well-established tool in high-school assignments around the world.

At the very least, there needs to be a way of avoiding the debacle of multiple deletions, which in the case of the "Global Economics" uploads even led to talk of blocking an entire range of university IP addresses. As such reactions indicate, when the relationship between universities and Wikipedia misfires, it is perceived as disruption on Wikipedia; for instructors and their students, the experience must be just as frustrating. Even with more successful initiatives, such as one from the University of Washington-Bothell that was featured on CNN, among other major media outlets, the relationship is not always happy: as one news source summarized it, "Prof replaces term papers with Wikipedia contributions, suffering ensues".

Both sides must do better. Discussing recent events, User:Noble Story declared "Maybe no school project will ever be able to emulate WP:MMM, but we can at least encourage them to try".

Keys to success

As coordinator of Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, I think there were a number of keys to that project's success; most of these were simple and could easily be repeated. There is no reason why future projects cannot emulate our success, and contribute articles that exemplify Wikipedia's best work as well as providing students with a rich and productive learning experience. There is no reason why an educational assignment should not aim to produce featured content. Here are some basic principles that may increase the likelihood of success.

  • The instructor must already have had experience on Wikipedia—here, we're referring to experience as an editor, with all of the frustrations and rewards that brings, such as having edits reverted and articles stuck with clean-up templates.
  • The instructor must be willing to interact on Wikipedia as least as much as his or her students, and probably much more. The encyclopedia is a site of constant interaction and negotiation, and the instructor cannot simply hold back and expect students to "get on with it".
  • The project should be registered with Schools and universities projects, and all of the relevant WikiProjects and community noticeboards should be notified. We strongly recommend that the project be established as its own WikiProject, so that its goals and methods are transparent to the entire Wikipedia community.
  • The assignment must be given time, probably an entire semester. All serious writing is a dynamic, ongoing process of rewriting, and this is more evident on Wikipedia than anywhere else. Any featured article, or even good article, will need to go through scores, more likely hundreds, of revisions. For students to see this evolutionary process is an important part of the experience, and has the potential to transform their writing process.
  • The assignment's goals must be clear and compatible with those of Wikipedia. "Original research" is highly prized in academia, but the genre of the encyclopedia prioritizes research and writing skills. The assignment should take account of the state of existing Wikipedia articles, and not duplicate existing content.
  • Students should be prepared to work with other people's text, revising and reworking stubs and start-class articles rather than thinking that their job is to start from scratch.
  • Students should be prepared for others to work with their text, and they should negotiate with and take advantage of the encyclopedia's collaborative environment.

To expand this last point, a more controversial suggestion is that students should start immediately editing in main space (rather than first working on their articles in user-space, off-site, or some other mediawiki configuration). This will allow them to absorb Wikipedia conventions from day one, and to profit from the guidance (and perhaps the criticism) of other editors.

Aiming for FA

Creating a featured article is a difficult task; there are, however, ways of making a difficult task at least a little easier. For a class to have a reasonable shot, they should bear in mind the following points.

  • Start early. It might be worth setting a Did you know ...? (discussed in last week's Dispatches) as an initial goal, to build momentum.
  • Start with good sources. It's tempting to begin with what's easily available. But every piece of information that is cited to a poor source now will have to be re-sourced later on, doubling the amount of time and effort required.
  • Use the library. Don't forget the possibility of using the interlibrary loan department. User:Wasted Time R is only half-joking when he says in his advice for editing history articles: "Find source material that isn't on Google. You'll have the field to yourself." And that doesn't just go for History.
  • Start with accurate references. Every time a citation is added, it should have full bibliographical details, with page number(s), and it should be clear what is directly cited and what is not. Every inaccuracy or confusion that creeps in now will have to be fixed later, more than doubling the amount and time of effort.

Murder, Madness, and Mayhem had the immense advantage in attracting the early attention of the FA-Team, a group of experienced editors dedicated to helping newer users to bring their articles to featured status; without them, we would never have achieved our challenging goal. However, it is no detraction from the FA-Team's efforts and dedication to wager that any organized group prepared to undertake the necessary primary research will attract the attention of other collaborators who will help out with advice, copy-editing, and Manual of Style and copyright issues.

Even the articles that came out of the recent Global Economics project have received an immense amount of attention and work. The amount of effort that has gone into providing feedback and advice has been extraordinary, not to mention the efforts to edit and format the articles themselves to salvage something from an otherwise disappointing experiment.

Other featured content

The Rose Garden at the University of British Columbia. UBC is one of a number of universities to have produced a two-way benefit in its relationship with Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's featured content extends beyond featured articles to encompass genres that may be suitable for particular subjects and levels of study. Featured lists comprise less running prose, but must be carefully designed and embedded in the encyclopedia's existing content; featured pictures may be the ideal challenge for students of photography; and students of music or audio-engineering may find the rigors of the featured sounds review process a stimulating test of their skills.

Students' reactions

On May 5, MMM students User:eecono, User:Katekonyk, User:Mfreud, and the FA-Team saw their handiwork on Wikipedia's main page, which was thus read by tens of thousands of visitors around the world that day—a testament to their hard work. As Mfreud (Monica Freudenreich) says of their finished product:

Because I have worked so hard writing and re-writing it, I am extremely proud of the finished result. I almost can't believe I helped write it when I look back over it. Term papers I have handed back end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed and files sit on my computer unopened ever again. This wikipedia page will be seen and likely used by others in the future. After all, I am quite confident that the references list is a comprehensive list of nearly everything published in English on the subject. Any student or person looking to read more about El Señor Presidente no longer has to look any further than our references list. Now that is something truly amazing!

In time, the principal contributors to Mario Vargas Llosa and The General in His Labyrinth hope to have the privilege of seeing their work displayed on the main page. As one student commented in response to feedback generated in the Peer Review and Featured article candidates processes, knowing their classmates had already crossed the finish line, "Their FA star makes me soo jealous. But gives me motivation!" We hope that all three MMM stars, as well as the efforts of the students who produced a host of new GA articles, encourage other school and university projects to reap the rewards of contributing to Wikipedia.

See also

Also this week:

Wikiversity interview — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — Dispatches — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

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