Learning in the wild: Murder Madness, and Mayhem

In the spring of 2008, Professor Jon Beasley-Murray, rather than bemoaning the inadequate and shallow coverage of Latin American literary studies on Wikipedia, assigned his students to improve the online encylopedia. Working in groups, some students were assigned to topics that did not yet have articles, while others were tasked with improving existing articles. The grading scheme was explicitly tied to the criteria and external peer review processes used by Wikipedia to assign good article and featured article status.

Though the demands of the assignment were significant, at the end of the semester three of the articles had achieved “featured” status, and eight more had achieved the slightly lesser but still daunting “good article” designation. Reading the articles created in the course of this assignment, it is difficult not to be impressed with the depth of the research (the citations and the references are strikingly comprehensive) and the clarity of the writing. Ironically, the pressures created by interactions with the wider Wikipedia culture tend to sharpen the application of “traditional” literacy skills. As Beasley-Murray observes: “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.” As one of Beasley-Murray’s students Monica Freudenreich acknowledged, “what pushed us to achieve higher standards were the other wikipedian editors. They were constantly pushing us to find better references and to reference everything. In working towards GA and FA they set the bar incredibly high.”

In addition, the students are immersed in an exercise that sharpens what might be described as new literacy skills. Beasley-Murray notes that  the students are “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.” At the very least, students who engage in such a process develop a much enhanced sense of the strengths and weakness of Wikipedia’s open editing model, and certainly will be that much better equipped to make judgments on the resource’s validity when consulting it in the future.

A notable instance of the wider community enhancing the learning process was manifested by the appearance of the “FA Team“. The FA Team are a a small group of experienced Wikipedia editors who were looking to increase the number of featured articles on the site, and actually approached Beasley-Murray’s students with offers to help with a range of considerations including copyediting, formatting and critiques of the articles themselves.  As Beasley-Murray reflected later in the process, the FA Team “embarked on an ongoing task of encouraging, mentoring, and guiding all of us in the process of editing Wikipedia articles to a high standard.” It seems inconceivable that such interactions could ever begin to occur in a closed, managed environment.

Finally, it must be noted that the outcomes of this exercise was not a paper exchanged solely between professor and student, or even discussed within a peer group, but the creation of a set of persisting open educational resources in their own right. Projections based on a one month sample of Wikipedia page views suggest that the pages created or enhanced via this project will range from 14,000 to 740,000 views per year.  And in each case, the article created ranks at or near the top for Google page ranks, using likely search parameters.  The authenticity of the process, and the notion of contribution to the digital commons has a notable effect on student motivation and sense of achievement. Freudenreich concludes: “This page will be read by countless people over the course of its existence. 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.”

From the perspective of an education technologist, it is also worth noting that there are no license fees to pay to Wikipedia for the provision of this learning environment.

Comments (1) to “Learning in the wild: Murder Madness, and Mayhem”

  1. There it is, the mother load!

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