UBC prof assigns Wikipedia for class work

Latin American literature prof gives students an “A-plus” if they create Wikipedia feature article

The more popular Wikipedia seemed to get, the more Monica Freudenreich was told by her professors at the University of British Columbia to stay as far away from it as possible.

The ever-growing online encyclopedia’s strategy of letting anyone with an Internet connection edit and revise articles, the argument usually goes, makes it unreliable, nonacademic and off limits for student researchers.

But then Freudenreich, 21, was given a surprising assignment by her Latin American literature professor: instead of writing term papers, the class would be writing Wikipedia articles.

“I guess I was more intrigued by it,” said Freudenreich, who is entering her fourth year in international relations and Latin American studies.

“I’ve heard in the past that you could write whatever you wanted on Wikipedia, but I didn’t really have any idea how it works. I was a little nervous about it.”

The semester-long assignment, which wrapped up in the spring, saw the class split into a dozen groups, with each group assigned an article about a particular Latin American author or book.

Some of the topics already had corresponding Wikipedia entries, while others were created from scratch.

The goal was to have each entry labelled a “featured article” on the site, a designation reserved for the most rigorously researched pages that follow Wikipedia’s standards for unbiased, well-cited and well-written material.

Creating a featured article earned groups a mark of A+.

Freudenreich’s group was assigned an article for the Spanish novel “El Señor Presidente.”

It began with a single sentence when the page was created in January: “‘El Señor Presidente’ is the title of a novel by Miguel Angel Asturias.”

Four months later, it had been edited and revised more than 1,000 times. It had grown to 8,000 words with more than 100 citations no easy task for a topic that was relatively obscure to begin with.

“It just required a lot of research. I think I talked to the research librarian about four times,” says Freudenreich.

“With it being a Latin American studies class, a lot of the content on these novels is in Spanish.”

Freudenreich’s entry was the first to become a featured article, which placed her in one of three groups to walk away with top marks.

Her professor, Jon Beasley-Murray, said the experiment was designed to force the class to explore the inner workings of Wikipedia, which has become ubiquitous on the Internet and has crept into students’ work.

“They’ve all used Wikipedia, but none of them had ever added anything, even though that’s partly the point of Wikipedia,” he says.

“Part of my thinking was that to really understand this site one of the most popular sites there is the best way to see how it works is to actually take part.”

Beasley-Murray, who plans to repeat the assignment when he teaches the class again in the fall, said the students learned the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia articles and, more importantly, how to sort the good from the bad.

He notes that of Wikipedia’s 2.4 million articles, only 2,000 are so-called featured articles less than 0.1 per cent.

A group of experienced Wikipedia editors took an interest in the project early on and began helping the students with their articles.

These anonymous editors would demand better citations and critique the writing. If the pages were vandalized or defaced, other Wikipedia editors would help undo the changes.

Beasley-Murray still plans to tell students not to cite Wikipedia in work they hand in, but he said the site can provide valuable starting points if articles are properly cited.

Freudenreich says that’s exactly how she now sees Wikipedia not a reliable source of information in itself, but rather a tool that can point her in the right direction.

“Maybe you don’t quote right off Wikipedia, but it’s a great … list of academic sources that you can go and see. It cuts down the search process,” she said.

“For featured articles or good articles, everything that’s been reviewed by other people out there, they set the bar really high higher than a professor would, I’d say.”

- The Canadian Press




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UBC prof assigns Wikipedia for class work

  1. UBC should do a “sort out” of its hopelessly obsolete professors–even U of T has its share, I understand–and of those who are living in the modern world. I nominate Michael Byers, and the professor responsible for this Wikipedia project, and the new director of the UBC journalism school, Mary Lynn Young, as among the modernists, if not the postmodernists, or in the class of the “prochronistic.” Anachronism rules, especially at UBC, sometimes in entire faculties. A careful search of The Ubyssey might turn up one.

    The Internet cycle of “academic” information is fascinating if slow- moving in some ways. There are very good blogs, as at TierneyLab at The New York Times, and the best, at The TLS. The Australian also has good opportunities for higher education comment.

    Blog comment sometimes appears now reinterpreted in academic journals, as with the comments on Hardy in Sir Peter’s blog at TLS, which showed up in the current Critical Quarterly. What is strange is the intractable power of inertia: Rupert Murdoch still has been unable to coordinate TLS, MySpace, WSJ, The Australian, and HarperCollins so as to create an international system of “academic” comment, despite the outstanding potential of his individual systems of opinion. Even in New York, Toronto, and London “centrifugal” is the theme in academic information sharing.

    UBC should by September offer monitored real time blogs in which students could comment on their courses and professors (often “shadow professors” called sessionals). Professors should have the opportunity for refutation. UBC’s stumbling extinct dinosaur steps towards student evaluations should make all of us cringe.

    Michael Byers for Prime Minister. He is not frightened of the human voice, as so many academics are. A good test of the power of new media would be the psychoanalytic interpretation and literature file. Why are the psychoanalytic interpretations of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” so chaotic? Why has nobody really noticed?

  2. That’s a really great example of what Wikipedia can do. Far too many people on both sides of the debate aren’t clear on what they support or oppose. I think Wikipedia’s greatest strength is that it puts its academic standards right out there to be seen. It’s not just citations. If you really doubt the authority of a piece you can go back and see every previous version, from the latest edit on back. What other resource offers that?

    Citing Wikipedia uncritically is poor scholarship, no question. But at the higher end (and you need some practice to tell the good from the bad from the questionable) it’s as strong as any peer-reviewed journal. And learning to produce something at that level is absolutely good training.

  3. Pingback: The Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence » Blog Archive » Wikis - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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