Teaching with Wikipedia

By Heather McCabe posted on March 25th, 2013


Assoc. Prof. Jon Beasley-Murray’s use of Wikipedia in the classroom began with an experiment. In his course Spanish 312, “Murder, Madness and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation” in Spring 2008, he asked students to edit and create Wikipedia articles on texts and authors they were reading in class. He also stipulated that they should bring these articles up to what Wikipedia calls “featured article” status.

To provide some context on the ambitious nature of the assignment, less than 0.1 percent of Wikipedia’s articles achieve featured article status. Wikipedia says that “featured articles are considered to be the best articles Wikipedia has to offer, as determined by Wikipedia’s editors,” and the editors use them as examples for writing other articles. Wikipedia also posts many of these articles on their main page, giving them increased visibility.

To Beasley-Murray’s knowledge, this was the first time that students were given the task of writing featured articles.

The results of the class’s project were a success. El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias became Wikipedia’s 2,000th featured article, and the article was showcased on Wikipedia’s main page. Pages on Mario Vargas Llosa and The General in His Labyrinth also received featured status, and eight others received “good article” status. Approximately 0.4 percent of Wikipedia articles earn that status. Only two Latin American literary topics had previously received that ranking. This meant, as Beasley-Murray noted in his essay on the course, that the class “effected an exponential increase in the number of quality articles about Latin American culture.”

One of the primary benefits of using Wikipedia in his teaching was that students were able to develop and deepen their understanding of writing, revision and research as a process. “It teaches students about revision and writing in a way the normal essays that I asked them to write didn’t,” Beasley-Murray said in a talk that he gave at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. “The fact that this went through 1,000 or so iterations, that they had endlessly to go back to the article, challenged often by other Wikipedia editors or in the review process, to get to first good article and then featured article, the fact that Wikipedia articles are always in process, that gave them a new way of thinking about writing, about academic writing, I think.”

Beasley-Murray has continued to ask students to contribute articles to Wikipedia, though on a less ambitious scale. For example, some of his recent graduate students wrote articles on the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges.

With Spanish 312, Beasley-Murray also began asking students to create blogs and to post one entry per week. “I very much believe that students need to keep the products of their work,” he said. With blogs, “They keep it, they tend to them. They turn it pink or green or put their own pictures on it or whatever they do.”

Unlike writing an essay which is only read by the professor, the students’ Wikipedia pages generated a huge readership. Approximately 750,000 people were reading an article on Gabriel García Márquez, according to Beasley-Murray. And a page on Mario Vargas Llosa which typically had 2,000 readers a day got a spike in traffic when the writer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. “It’s the first port of call for all the journalists who are told by their editors, ‘This Peruvian guy has won the Nobel Prize, go and find out something about him and write an article,’” Beasley-Murray said.

Two of his students also received some unintended feedback when they were least expecting it. They went to the library to do research to improve their Wikipedia article on El Señor Presidente and asked the reference librarian for help finding sources. “The reference librarian said, ‘Well, there’s a really great Wikipedia article on this,” Beasley-Murray recounted.

Beasley-Murray says that he tries not to make Wikipedia the focus of his classes, and that it’s just another tool that he uses in his teaching. But, he added, “I think it’s the outcome, the output, that they’re the most proud of, though. It’s the one they can show their parents and their friends and so on. It’s the one that endures more obviously, at least, after the semester is over.”