Ars Technica has the write up of an experiment performed by two University professors. Instead of assigning an ordinary term paper, they had their students create a new Wikipedia article on some topic pertaining to the course. To summarize the summary, it was a rewarding experience for the students but had some issues. In particular, several of the articles were immediately deleted or merged into other articles. The original PowerPoint is worth skimming if you’re interested.
My take: this should absolutely be encouraged. How many term papers ever see the light of day after they’re graded? The paper benefits the student, maybe the professor, but rarely anyone else. Can you imagine how many papers college students have written about Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat? Wikipedia needs you!
I’ve thought about the merits of Wikipedia assignments ever since I started editing back in college. The issue of public exposure wasn’t so important. I’ve had that since I was little. It was mostly the idea of not letting all the research I’d done for a course go to waste. I was so enamored with the idea that I gave it a trial run myself. After writing a term paper on two ancient Greek astronomers in the Fall of 2005, I created articles about their works. It was a good but surprisingly time-consuming experience for me. Putting my work on display for all the world to see forced me to double-check everything I’d written, clarify my reasoning, and introduce explanatory figures and tables. But the finished product was great. Those two articles I wrote are undoubtedly the best online source for their two topics. And they’re unexpectedly deep content for Wikipedia, which is not necessarily known for its coverage of original materials or ancient history.
The main problem with this approach is that Wikipedia may not accept these changes with open arms. The professors made some good points about this in their slides. The Wikipedia way is to start small and rough, and edit your way to a finished product. I did this for my two articles. This is the way papers are written as well, it’s just that the process is less visible. What’s more, it helps to be familiar with Wikipedia culture before making major edits. For the students whose articles were deleted or merged, I’m sure they could have asked whether there articles were appropriate on some talk page or another. For contributors not familiar with Wikipedia’s style, their contributions will be a heaping mass of words in need of copyediting. This would be even more important if the students had been assigned to edit an article, rather than write one from scratch.
All in all, if done well, this use of Wikipedia can be great for both the students and the community. Here’s the money quote from one of the students:
This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research.
I’ve always wished I could link to Wikipedia on this blog by typing “[[Tiger Woods]]”, just like I would in a Wikipedia article. I even considered writing a WordPress plugin to do just that. Thanks to the WikipediaLink plugin by pixelbath, I don’t have to. It already works great. Mad props!
There’s a long tradition of great titles in the software engineering world. Djikstra’s “Goto Considered Harmful” has spawned thousands of imitators, and even a meta-paper. Fred Brook’s The Mythical Man-Month clicks as soon as you understand the title. Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” gives open source software its defining image.
I read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” as an introduction to the world of open source software for someone interested in joining it. There’s a history lesson to explain where you’ve come from and what you’ve accomplished. There’s arguments and a case study to show that you’re on the right ship. And finally, the essay serves as a call to arms, to get you excited about becoming a contributor.
I found the history lesson most interesting. I’d had some understanding of this before, but lacked much detail. ESR gives a first-person account of UNIX and software development from the late 1970′s to the present. This is the canonical story of open source. It has its heroes and villains, its true believers and false idols. There’s the Moses figure, Richard Stallman, who freed the users of UNIX from the oppressive yoke of restrictive licenses. But like Moses, he couldn’t enter the promise land. Open source stagnated, awaiting its Last True Prophet. This was Linus Torvalds, who created the Linux kernel, the last piece of the open source operating system.
ESR really uses that of tone. I get the sense that he’s intimidated by Richard Stallman and absolutely idolizes Linus Torvalds. The essay drips with hero worship. Linus is the visionary whose vision he’s writing about.
Beyond the hero worship, there is a clear exposition of the open source model. In order to avoid the problem of N^2 channels of communication amongst N contributors, open-source project have a small set of core developers. These core developers have total control over the project. They decide what gets checked in, and where the project goes. It’s a (hopefully) benevolent oligarchy. Outside of that core, there are occasional contributors and legions of testers, who can submit bug reports. Does this strict hierarchy really sound like a Bazaar?
If you want a real Bazaar, think about Wikipedia. Since I’ve never contributed to an open source project, I kept it in mind as a reference point. It works pretty well, but this perspective has the side effect of making open source development look positively Cathedral-like. Think about it. Rather than having a core set of contributors and legions of users/testers, Wikipedia explicitly aims to make all of its users into contributors. It does this by lowering the barriers to entry as low as it conceivably can, even if this leads to vandalism. All that’s needed to contribute is the ability to write in some language. Last time I checked, English had a few more speakers than C++. Rather than just reporting problems, users are empowered to fix them on the spot. See a typo? Just correct it. Want a citation? Find one and plop it in to help future readers.
I enjoyed “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” for the history lesson, but I find its central image misleading. The development process of open-source projects is as well-organized as any commercial venture.
Kind of scary, huh? Here it is. I’m afraid #2000 was a bad one. That bracket is definitely upside-down.
Edit #2000 feels a bit cheap, since it was actually made by a bot. On the other hand, I personally scraped the data it’s using, wrote the program to generate the bracket from that data, and wrote the MediaWiki uploader program. Still, with this bot and the Grand Slam Project (I’ll write more on that later), I’m probably going to hit 3,000 all-too-soon.
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