Is murder, madness and mayhem the future of higher education?

Central Library Interior #2, originally uploaded by lightgazer.

I’ve been following the Murder, Madness and Mayhem project with keen interest since its inception, but have held off on blogging about the efforts beyond my enthusiastic initial impressions. For one, the progress of the project revealed just how little I knew about the Wikipedia review process and its at-times bewildering attendant culture. In addition, Professor Jon Beasley-Murray (a name that attentive Abject readers will no doubt recognise) had expressed some misgivings to me about publicizing such an inherently experimental approach, one with no roadmap and no guarantees.

Thankfully, Jon has written — with the characteristic speed and eloquence that frequently has me shaking my head in wonder — a detailed reflection and progress report on the Wikipedia website. “Read the whole thing” was never better advice, but to whet your appetite I’ll excerpt some of his observations:

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 they would learn about its weaknesses, and also 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.

…When setting that assignment, I had not really comprehended how ambitious it was. Wikipedia defines a “feature 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 feature articles.

…I liked the idea that students would be engaging in 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 often 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.

…it was not long before we stumbled across our first, and by far the most fortuitous, 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 moribund 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 feature 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 me to see if I’d like any help.

…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 on wikipedia; 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.

…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 (now entitled The President (novel)) 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, one 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.

…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 the 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.

[Wow, that’s a lot of text to excerpt. I hope Jon isn’t annoyed with me. Really, there’s heaps more provocative and useful stuff in the original, go read it now!]

As an aside, check out the discussion page on the project’s first “good article”… As an example of real-world traditional and new literacy skills being developed in an authentic environment, as an example of engaged, high-wire pedagogy, does it get any better?

Bonus Wikipedia gossip round: Did Jimmy Wales really have an affair with Rachel Marsden? In the course of trying to “clean up” the entry that details her, um, eventful past relationships, did he not read it? Clearly, history suggests that she might be kind of high maintenance… He’s lucky all that happened was some leaked IM logs and an eBay auction.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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6 Responses to Is murder, madness and mayhem the future of higher education?

  1. Jon says:

    I blush. As always, too many kind words.

    Heh, but what if it were the future of higher education, eh?

  2. Brian says:

    Jon, believe it or not I tried to tamp down on the hyperbole.

    And I must confess, I had a relatively literal interpretation of my blog title in mind, I’m kind of in an apocalyptic mood… But I’m pretty sure we will be seeing more of this sort of thing. I’m so grateful you’ve set the bar so high off the mark.

  3. Wow. I think I should signup for one of Jon’s classes … In the 80s my university experiences weren’t as interesting as this is ….

  4. Jon says:

    Today in class we congratulated the group who’d succeeded in getting themselves a “good article.” And I asked the whole class to guess what proportion of wikipedia articles are good articles. They started at 30%, so it took a while. 5%? Lower. 2%? Lower. 1%? Lower. And so on for a while.

    We also played the guessing game on page visits per month, but this time the other way around. Higher… Higher… Higher…

    Finally we calculated quickly that around 600,000 people would see their Garcia Marquez article over the course of a year. That’s quite a public, eh!

    Meanwhile, Patricia, you’d be welcome!

  5. Jim says:

    This is a masterpeice, I am already lining up at least one faculty at UMW to take a look at the possibilities here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the coolest project I have yet to see from any of these open tools.

    I wonder if the students will take possession of their articles after the class, I’m sure certain one’s will, and how that will impact the nature of wikipedia more generally. I think this is akin to a paradigm shift, and a space where the struggle over ideas is only a history click away.

    Bravo Jon, now off to Posthegemony to get the rest of the goodness.

  6. Jon says:

    Too kind, Jim, too kind!

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