Monday, 22 June 2009

Wikipedia + Edupunk = Murder, Madness, and Mayhem?

Apologies – this is a very long post but the role of this blog is duel purpose: to disseminate information and to act as tool of reflection. So it’s a long post as there’s a great deal I wish to internalise.

Okay so this is possibly one of the bravest exercises I have ever seen using learning technology let alone wikis. Imagine letting your students loose on the web, freely collaborating under the scrutiny of, and in some cases, collaborating with the outside world.

Murder, Madness, Mayhem & Wikipedia
This is exactly what academic Jon Beasley-Murray, University of British Columbia, did for his course ‘Murder, Madness, and Mayhem’ which covers Latin American literary texts.

Essentially he decided to include Wikipedia as a central part of a course he was teaching. Conscious of the often cited weakness of the encyclopaedia in terms of poor quality content, which in turn is often referred to by students in their work, the exercise centered on the belief that only through engaging in active contribution to Wikipedia will students would learn about its weaknesses, as well as its strengths. Accordingly the assignment brief was that, in groups, the students should edit and where necessary create Wikipedia articles on texts associated with the course. Not only that but the students were required to bring up the articles to "featured article" status. And this is not a walk in the park since Wikipedia defines a "featured article" as an article that "exemplifies [its] very best work and features professional standards of writing and presentation." The standards are very high so much so that fewer than 0.1% of Wikipedia's articles are featured.

Edupunk = Teaching –Blackboard + DIY + The Clash
Digressing slightly, this exercise has been cited as example of ‘Edupunk’ – a term depicting an educational movement which received some degree of notoriety last year. ‘Edupunk’ was initially coined by Jim Groom in his blog (Murder, Madness, Mayhem is so EDUPUNK) and later expanded by The New York Times who defines it as "an approach to teaching that avoids mainstream tools like PowerPoint and Blackboard, and instead aims to bring the rebellious attitude and D.I.Y. ethos of ’70s bands like The Clash to the classroom.", (BTW – apt definition but I always regard the Clash as fake punks). Stephen Downes conveniently refines the definition into 3 aspects: reaction against commercialization of learning; do-it-yourself attitude and thinking and learning for yourself, (as reported in "Edupunk" Rocks the (Virtual) House - some good comments here BTW recognizing that despite all the hype many commentators are still referring to Edupunk as taking place within the classroom context and in doing so ignore the universal fact that a great deal of learning takes place outside of the class). Anyway back to the exercise

What’s wrong with Wikipedia.
Not a question but a statement. Murray actually recorded and journalised with, great openness and honesty, the exercise as it progressed here. So we can have a look at a few choice details, insights and reasonings behind the project and of its consequences.

Firstly he outlines the ongoing issue. Basically in terms of it’s core mission of collecting and transmitting knowledge Wikipedia is a huge success. It’s currently ranked as the 7th most visited site on the web, with 2,918,778 content pages generated through 314,194,836 edits (since the site began). However students use the site without knowing how it works (try this – ask your students if they have heard of Wikipedia and then if they have heard of ‘wikis’ – you’ll be surprised). Furthermore they are often told not to reference the site but not told why in terms of the reliability of the content, background of the authors, lack of accredited peer review etc.

Assignment Mission Statement
Murray’s assignment attempts to communicate these issues to the students by requiring them to directly engage in developing articles on the system such that they can experience these issues. Primarily this is achieved through the students developing an article worthy of featured article status. However there are a number of ancillary objectives:

• First off it would serve to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of the course content.
• But of more significance it involves the students in a ‘real world’ project in which their efforts are publicly viewable possibly on a permanent basis (unlike most course essays).
• “Revision is (almost) everything” as the students are encouraged to constantly review and reflect the work becoming aware of the importance of revisions to good writing. Contrast this with the finality of receiving a graded essay wherein there is no further incentive to revise the content after the grade has been given.
• It’s public and so the collaboration will occur not only between the students but might extend to involve contributors from outside of the class.
• Finally, and I really like this, the assignment grade will not be determined by the tutor’s professional judgement but rather from outside the class through the articles’ external impact. On the outset the tutor declared that a group that turned its article into a "featured article" would receive an A+, (no questions asked!!!) and a group that achieved "good article" would receive an A. According to Murray therefore the grade would be determined by collective, public, peer review.

It’s worth mentioning that the assignment was not the sole assessment taking place for the course. The students were required to blog on a weekly basis with a mid and end semester exam. Nonetheless there were a number of pitfalls to consider. For example the students might not engage with the project or on the other extreme end up in edit wars (where competing authors argue over the content). And of course there are the attendant risks with allowing the students to develop their work under public scrutiny.

What’s astonishing is that Murray was not overly concerned if the final article was not all of the students’ own work. Primarily because an integral part of the project is for the students to work with other users. The thought did occur that someone could be paid to generate the article as a whole but Murray cites Wikipedia’s system which tracks each users contribution – most wikis do this, you can see in detail each students contribution – how much they added (or removed) and when.

What happened next…
Anyway along the way the project attracted the attention of Wikipedia’s FA-Team – a group of experienced Wikipedia editors whose aim is to increase the number of featured articles. They became involved providing advice on
the meticulous process of editing Wikipedia articles to a high standard.

Interestingly, although the assignment was concerned with teaching students the drawbacks of using Wikipedia as a source, they still made the same mistakes when creating their article. Namely they still added information which was unsourced, poorly referenced and from other websites. But Murray cites this as a benefit since, as the Wikipedia editors insisted that every item in the article had to be referenced, the students were forced to reveal their sources. So the students had to go back and re-evaluate their sources, finding better ones, and trying again.

So the assignment is a very powerful mechanism for bringing out the weaknesses in students' research skills and then teaching that research is a lengthy process involving critical thinking critical thinking the information they come across and about their own writing.

And the results are…
Are pretty spectacular. In all the class developed 3 ‘featured’ articles, 8 ‘good’ articles and 1 ‘B’ article. Here’s one of the featured articles - El Señor Presidente. The other articles are listed at WikiProject Murder Madness and Mayhem, together with a brief outline of the project.


  1. v. interesting - thought of doing this myself some time ago - but lacked the courage :)

  2. I hope you get round to it. There are a few Agile related pages and stubs on Wikipedia which could be improved / expanded? Go on please!