Term Paper 2.0: Reinventing The College Essay Via Wikipidia

I just got out of a great session at Educause that I thought would add another wrinkle to earlier discussions of the value of Wikipedia. The two speakers Andreas Brockhaus and Martha Groom, had students in a environmental biology class write or significaltly edit Wikipedia articles in lue of a traditional essay assignment. (The full power point from their presentation is online.) The assignment is remarkibly similar to what CHNM’s Jeremy Boggs does with students in his History 100 seminar, what can I say, great minds think alike!

The power point does a decent job and is relativly self explanitory, if you have a few minutes it might be worth your attention. But here were her findings.

The Good:

“Students gained perspective on the value of credible sources, and complete citations
Peer review became a more purposeful effort; good critiques more highly valued
Students invested more in their work, felt greater ownership, and experienced greater returns for their efforts
Products were generally better written than typical term papers”

The Less than good:

“Too much choice led to some poor postings (which were deleted)
Timing — Publishing once at the end of course
May be better to publish in stages
Posting deadline with at least one week left to course
Students needed extra guidance to create high quality articles in encyclopedia style
More instructor time required to shepherd students through entire process”

The Verdict:

I think its an amazing idea. Take for example one of the products, an article on deforestation during the Roman period. It’s a very solid piece of work, and the best benefit of all, class work has an impact: Google Deforestation Roman and its the number one hit. Just think of the possibilities!

Osama bin Laden For Kids

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: War on Terror

It might surprise you to know that at least 10 children’s books about Osama bin Laden have been published in the last 6 years. I was intrigued, just what do publishers think children should learn about this contemporary villain?

To start to try answering this question I took a look at two biographies of bin Laden published in very different series. The War on Terror Series “covers the full range of topics and issues needed for meaningful discussion, clear understanding, and hope for the future.” they offer “reassurance that democracies are doing what is necessary to make the world safe.” In contrast the Middle East Leaders Series “presents the life stories of those leaders who, for two generations, have been most important-or notorious-to their people and to international politics.” While both series explicitly frame Bin Laden a bit differently, as either part of a conversation about the war on terror or a Middle East Leader they are remarkably similar, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re both terrible “biographies”.

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: Mideast Leaders

Often, children’s biographies start off with extensive discussion of their subjects childhood and school experiences. These stories are almost entirely absent from the bin Laden books. Instead, both books begin with sections on the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As far as children’s book publishers are concerned, the story of Osama bin Laden starts at the world trade center. The books both quickly gloss over his early life, and cut to the heart of the matter: Each book has the bold headline, “Why bin Laden Hates America“.

The books depart slightly from each-other in how they answer this question. The Middle East Leaders series explains bin Laden’s hatred for America in very specific complaints. While “Osama bin Laden hates America, its government, and its citizens for several reasons: “two reasons in particular stand out… the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia…(and) support for Israel.” After discussing these two specifics, the author offers further explanation. “As much as Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, bin Laden himself believes that Americans are the real terrorists. “

Bin Laden’s plans for world dommination

The “War on Terror” biography offers a more general explanation about bin Laden’s perspective . The low quality, heavily tinted image of bin Laden to the left is indicative of the general approach of the book. “He hates everything about us and will fight to the death. Bin laden and his Muslim extremist groups fear a U.S. conspiracy will destroy traditional Islamic culture and values. He believes America has the worst value system in the world. He thinks that democracy and our free society make us materialistic, with a sick desire for possessions instead of spiritual enlightenment. He believes the only way to create a pure Islamic state is to wage jihad, or holy war, against the U. S and its allies and drive their forces out of Muslim lands.”

To answer the question I started with, these children’s books about bin Laden exist to address his role in 9/11 more then they exist to explain his life and failing to achieve the later insures the failure of the former. These books have no interest in making him human, in understanding how someone can be driven to such a terrible extreme. While they each offer slightly different reasons for why he hates America, without a more personal story readers cannot really understand this hatred, instead they are left with vague impressions of a monster lurking somewhere in the Middle East. Possibly the 4 to 8 year old children the War on Terror series targets just aren’t the right audience for biographies on bin Laden.

So what does this tell us about kids books about villains? I have one preliminary thought. Children’s books about heroes generally distill virtues for children to follow. (The clearest and most blatant example is ValueTales biographies) One might think the contrary would be true for books about villains, transforming their lives into parables of what not to do, but if these few bin Laden books are indicative of a larger trend it would not seem to be the case. But I suppose what can we learn from him if he isn’t presented as a person?


bush and bin laden same cover

There is something very striking about the cover from the War on Terror Series. Something about a picture of Osama surrounded by stars, stripes, and a little red white and blue ribbon really seems to send mixed messages. I suppose they are trying to say, “yes its about bin Laden, but the accouterments of the American flag tell you what side we’re on.” When looking at the cover I couldn’t help but think that this kind of cover would make more sense with a picture of a patriot than a picture of public enemy number one. Indeed, it appears that that is exactly the publishers thought. See the image to the right, with George Bush framed by the same cover. (Note to publishers, there are times when it is appropriate to mix things up the covers within a series.)

Playing History:Hacked Screen Shot

Playing History Screen Shot

Here is a quick mock up of a individual games page for Playing History. (Click on the image to see it at its native resolution) Everything isn’t perfectly lined up but you get the picture.

Aunt Kath Drops In

Last weekend my god mother dropped in here are some of the photographic highlights.

We caught a performance art thing at the Kennedy Center.

And passed a few notable buildings on the way to dinner.

Then we went back to our house to call it a night.

The next day we stopped off at the farmers market to pick up some lunch.

And then we stopped by my office to show my god mother where I work.

and then we visited the Occoquan craft fair. (It was very cute)

All in all it was a great weekend!

Playing History For An Audiance

So far I am calling my video games resource for teachers “Playing History.” As I am imagining the resource there are four potential audiences, and each of the audiences would enter the picture at different stages, and each would have unique needs.

K-12 History Teachers
The primary audience is Teachers. As outlined in my use case the primary goal of the resource is to make it as easy as possible for teachers to find game content and associated lesson plans to use in their classrooms. The initial stages in building the tool will all focus on building a useful tool for teachers. It will be necessary to gather together and review a large amount of games to build up enough content to make it worthwhile to visit, aggregating games that crisscross the history curriculum. The site’s content and development would at this stage mirror History Matters. Once the site has enough content to get off the ground the project would start to target the early adopters, teachers in ning groups like next gen teachers groups on yahoo teachers, and Google certified teachers. Those interested would be able to join the project in a collaborative fashion, adding to the content by reviewing games. With the early adopter teachers on board the next target would be district Academic Coaches/Curiculm coordinators.

Academic Coaches/ Curriculum Coordinators
Curriculum Coordinators work with teachers to develop their districts curriculum, in larger districts there is a director for each content area and in smaller ones a single director manages content of all the disciplines, in either way their job description sets them up as a way to connect teachers with resources and develop the classroom. In the second stage of development Playing History would target Curriculum Coordinators through conferences (like ASCD), and professional development events. This phase would also role out a separate interface for coordinators, one that allows them to send resources to the teachers they support both within the site’s canvas and also through existing communication networks like email. As the site grows and gains attention and users it will become a useful place for the third audience Developers.

Educational Game Developers
There is a growing community of educational games developers, but sadly there is no easy portal for those developers to get their games to teachers. Once Playing History has acquired an audience for teachers it can function as a portal for developers to expose their games to a wide audience of educators interested in games.

Educational Researchers
Finally the resource could eventually become a interesting nexus for educational researchers to further plan and develop new projects. By providing a common ground for developers and teachers to connect and discuss each others work the site would be full of interesting information for projects. In the fourth stage of development Playing History would offer a portal for researchers to track the success of different approaches to educational games and better survey the needs of classroom teachers.

Why fix something that isn't broken? Wikipedia vs. Citizendium

xkcd's take on WikipediaI understand that the Wikipedia has its problems, but I consistently find it to be one of the most thorough and quickest way to get information, further I love how transparent that information. You can read the arguments about the content on the given page and evaluate its credibility.

For the sake of argument, last week was the first time I had heard about the Jena 6 case. I heard a discussion of the incident on NPR on the way home from work. Once I got home I wanted to know more about the incident, but I found most of the news coverage to be thin, and it often repeated the same few details. Lucky for me the Wikipedia was right at hand. Take a look at how great this article is on the topic, spend some time considering how through the page is, and how many news pieces it links to. One of the most interesting points in the discussion for me is when various Wikipedians begin discussing the credibility of statements from NPR. All reporting, and all encyclopedia pieces represent a point of view, it is impossible for us offer a completely objective account (it is quite telling that the Wikipedia page on objectivity is in need of a expert on the subject), so isn’t it ideal to have a conversation about the decisions in a article upfront and avaliable to any readers. If you have a problem with a Wikipedia article, bring it to the discussion page. Furthermore, consider the value of this history page for historians of the future trying to unpack the meaning of such and incident. (If you have time to read through the entire discussion page on the jena 6 it is well worth it.)

So we return to my title. The Wikipedia has been unbelievably successful. It already has systems in place to limit vandalism, so why is the Citizendium trying to fix something that just does not seem to be broken?