Once shunned by academics, Wikipedia now a teaching tool


Wikipedia, the upstart Internet encyclopedia that most universities forbid students to use, has suddenly become a teaching tool for professors.

Recently, university teachers have swapped student term papers for assignments to write entries for the free online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia is an “open-source” website, which means that entries can be started or edited by anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Writing for Wikipedia “seems like a much larger stage, more of a challenge,” than a term paper, said professor Jon Beasley-Murray, who teaches Latin American literature at the University of British Columbia in this western Canadian city.

“The vast majority of Wikipedia entries aren’t very good,” said Beasley-Murray, but said the site aims to be academically sound.

To reach its goal of academic standards, said Wikipedia’s website, it set up an assessment scale on its English-language site. The best encyclopedia entries are ranked as “Featured Articles,” and run each day on the home page at www.wikipedia.com.

To be ranked as a “Featured Article,” Wikipedia said an entry must “provide thorough, well-written coverage of their topic, supported by many references to peer-reviewed publications.”

Of more than 10 million articles in 253 languages, only about 2,000 have reached “Featured Article” status, it said.

As an experiment, last January Beasley-Murray promised his students a rare A+ grade if they got their projects for his literature course, called “Murder, Madness and Mayhem,” accepted as a Wikipedia Featured Article.”

In May, three entries created by nine students in the course became the first student works to reach Wikipedia’s top rank.

Their articles, about the book “El Señor Presidente” by Nobel prize-winning Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias, ran May 5 on Wikipedia’s home page.

Wikipedia has also designated, but not yet published, a student’s biography on Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and an entry on Gabriel García Márquez’s book, “the General in his Labyrinth.”

Beasley-Murray said the projects took the students four months, and one entry was revised 1,000 times.

Typically, thousands or millions of people visit a Wikipedia entry, and each visitor is able to edit entries, or even flag an article considered unworthy to have it removed.

Working online with anyone watching or editing “was really hard to get into,” said Eva Shiu, a third-year student who worked on the Marquez entry. “But it was really exciting, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” she said.

“I got addicted to it ... I was up nights until three or four a.m. in the morning working on it.”

Monica Freudenreich, who worked on the Asturias entry, said she liked the fact her contribution will survive online. Usually term papers “end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed,” she wrote on Wikipedia.

The University of British Columbia entries are among some 70 academic projects now registered at Wikipedia, by institutions from Yale University to the University of Tartu, Estonia.

Wikipedia itself invites professors “to use Wikipedia in your class to demonstrate how an open content website works (or doesn’t).”

But the experiment has had controversies, including student work that was instantly deleted as not “notable.”

“Sometimes it’s a disaster,” said Beasley-Murray. “But in some ways it’s good news ... this was a great learning experience for students.”


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    I think Wikipedia is amazing. Yes it has its downsides but overall it is a cornucopia of information and fascinating trivia. Most of what I read has been quite accurate as compared to other sources of information.

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    beats encyclopedia brittanica etc etc as it has a far wider range of topis, and has the space to go into depth. Multiple contributions also can allow for boraderf perspectives to be represented. But one has to wonder how accurate any encyclopedia can be when there is always someone to decide what is worthy, and what is an accepted viewpoint on something. Difference between empirical history versus academic discourse I guess.

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    I don't understand why some people don't like Wikipedia. If I ever need to look something up, that's where I start! Like rjd_jr, usually the things there are pretty accurate.

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    Wikipedia rocks. Sometimes it rocks back and forth but sometimes the entries are way off the rocker.

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    What a pity more of the global warming deniers, fairy-story-believing Bible bashers and their ilk don't read up a few more facts in Wikipedia before commenting here

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    One problem with Wikipedia is not their fault but the fault of students who know how to copy/paste term reports without having the brains to change all the nouns from link-blue to black. Plus, of course, they don't actually read what they've copied.

    On the plus side for teachers, it's much easier to find where the student plagiarized their reports - just a simple google search will usually provide a few thousand sites.

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    I've learned alot from wikipedia but i'd hardly reference it as the ulitimate teaching tool. Yes maybe to create hand outs for short "science". I admit i've used it before to study and copy paragraphs into my own words back in the day. haha. Its definatley a good "what does that mean" tool.

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    Once shunned by academics, Wikipedia now a teaching tool

    I wonder if anybody has asked John Seigenthaler about this.

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