Friday, November 12, 2010


Occasionally, I admit, I get a little blasé about the open web and open education.

For instance, when I started using blogs in the classroom, it seemed like a big deal. Both the technicalities and the idea itself were fraught with worry. Now (thanks in large part to the work of Brian Lamb and his team), blog aggregation seems a cinch.

Students are increasingly comfortable with the technology. And they are pretty happy about opening and maintaining an online reading journal, and commenting on the entries made by their classmates. These days it all works fairly seamlessly, and seems hardly to be a matter for further comment. In just about every class I teach, blogs are required, and that’s that.

The same is gradually becoming true with asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Thanks in part to the fact that I have returning students who have already worked with Wikipedia in my classes, as well as thanks to the fact that I’ve done it before and I have a fair idea of how things will turn out, getting students to contribute to the encyclopedia isn’t quite as fraught with anxiety and excitement as it was the first semester I tried it. Then, we were really flying by the seat of our pants. Now, it’s more or less (not yet completely) simply another component of the course. Look, for instance, are the posts for a recent class on magical realism.

But occasionally I’m reminded that it is indeed a big deal.

The other day, in Barcelona, while preparing for my informal presentation on “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” for the Drumbeat festival, I thought I’d have a look at the page hits for the article on Mario Vargas Llosa, an article that my students completely rewrote and brought to featured article status.

It was one of the successes of that project (though again, after we got a first featured article, the other ones didn’t seem quite so special any more). And I figured that it had probably got quite a few page views in the past month or so, given that Vargas Llosa had recently been awarded the Nobel prize.

I remember clearly the day I first found out that you could see page view statistics for Wikipedia articles. I came into class and asked the students if they had any idea how many people were reading their work. Instead of the usual assignment of an exam or term paper read by exactly one person, their professor, they were now writing for a real public.

They were shocked to find out (for example), that the Gabriel García Márquez article that they were rewriting was read by something like 1,500 people a day: 62,000 a month, or close to three-quarters of a million people a year. That really gave them a sense that what they were doing mattered in some way.

Back in 2008, the Vargas Llosa article was getting close to 500 hits a day: over 11,000 a month or around 140,000 a year. Not shabby, and several orders of magnitude more of a readership than any academic article will ever get; better indeed than most best-selling novelists.

In September of this year, the statistics were broadly similar: page views per day ranged from 288 to 674, mostly a little under 500. In October, things changed.

On October 7th, the day the Nobel prize was announced, 116,700 people viewed the page. 116,700 people read my students’ work. this was the first point of reference for the public looking to find out more about the new laureate. And presumably the knock-on audience was much greater still, as the article will no doubt have been also the first point of call for journalists, news organizations, and others looking quickly to find out and broadcast information about the winner.

It’s marvelous that the article was (and remains) a featured article, which had gone through the most rigorous hoops Wikipedia provides to ascertain that it is well-sourced, reliable, well-written, and comprehensive. This is what my students wrote, after 1,225 revisions over the semester.

And 116,700 read it.

The next day, the number of readers went down: to a mere 60,000. And now the readership has settled at a mere 2,500 or so a day: a little shy of a million a year. Reading my students’ work.

I should be less blasé about this.


Enric Senabre said...

You make it sound simple and easy, maybe it was, but conquering that seems such a big knowledge battle, congrats!

posthegemony said...

Thanks guys!

louis-georges schwartz said...

fantastic! i was about to ask for an explanation of the mechanics of this when i saw the wikipedia link on the right of this page. i think you have just improved my cinema and urbanism syllabus for winter term. many thanks.