University of Georgia Starts Project for Free Wiki Textbooks

I was kind of wondering when they would start something like this. For the uninitiated a Wiki is an online text that anyone can edit. It has links within it to other articles forming a web on constantly changing information -- sort of like an encyclopedia only better. The most famous Wiki is Wikipedia -- which I think is a wonderful resource, but since it is based on the premise that anyone can edit it can sometimes have notable errors.

Anyway, some professors from the University of Georgia are trying to applying the idea to textbooks:

So, what's this Global Text Project about?

It's an effort to pool the knowledge of university professors and students around the globe and produce 1,000 university textbooks using wiki technology. The books will span undergraduate subjects from biology to literature to computer science.

There are millions of university teachers around the world and tens of millions of students, whose knowledge could be put to greater use, says project instigator Rick Watson at the University of Georgia in Athens. Countless essays and assignments are currently consigned to the waste bin. "It's an untapped intellectual resource."

How can millions of people write a coherent book?

Well, it's not an entire free-for-all. Anyone will be able to contribute to the new textbooks, true -- but unlike wikipedia, the online, user-made encyclopedia, only an editor will be able to approve contributions. Otherwise the texts risk being wrong, long and hard to follow, with students being able to fall back on the old "but it's in the text, sir" excuse for wrong answers in their essays.

Do we really need more textbooks?

The particular goal of this project is to create free books for those students in developing countries who cannot afford traditional textbooks, which can cost $100 or more. Most current textbooks cannot be freely scanned on to the web because they are protected by copyright. And in fast-moving fields such as computer science, a printed textbook quickly falls out of date.

Of course, any student can already glean a wealth of information on any topic from the web. But as every student knows, you can drown in information without a good text as a guide.

I like this idea for a couple of reasons.

1) Because the ability to edit is widespread but the approval of those edits is chaperoned, you combine the best parts of Wikipedia while skirting its worst issues: abuse and inaccurary.

2) Anyone who has attended college in the last decade has to be astonished by the shameful increases in textbook prices. Any alternatives for students would be much appreciated.

3) No textbook is absolutely current. In fact, the process of making textbooks -- particularly large textbooks that are written by teams -- is not unlike a Wiki collaboration. Modifying the textbooks incrementally over time as new information comes in would make them much more likely to be up to date.

4) You could make this part of the learning experience. For example, say I am a professor for a Intro to Neuroscience class. I start off with a basic Wiki filled with articles I have written about the lectures in the course. At the end of the course as an extra credit project, I could ask students to go modify or add something to their textbooks. The edits could be verified by the TAs and added for the next year's class. The benefit for students is the ability to truly participate in their learning. The benefit for the professor is an increasingly more accurate and more comprehensible textbook that accrues the longer the professor teaches.

The one reservation that I have about all of this is when paradigms really shift in science. For example, say our entire concept of LTP changes from a truly provocative paper. How would a Wiki adapt to that? Surely someone would try and edit the article, but there are bound to be holdouts to the old view. How can the new article be resolved to incorporate the new views? Would you feel comfortable for an unauthorized individual to scrap and article and start fresh? These are issues they are going to have to work out.

One more thing about Wikis. They are superhandy when you are a grad student trying to organize your thoughts for a thesis proposal. You can start one and have it hosted for free at a site called PBWiki. I have been using it for a couple of months in a nonpublic fashion to compile lab protocols and organize my thoughts about papers. I highly recommend it particularly because it is easily accessible to people with a limited computer science background.

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I think that reservation you bring up is a plus for the wiki system. Sure, that'll be an issue. But how is a traditional textbook going to adapt to the new research? At the very least, the wiki will give the reader a sense that the field is dynamic and that there are always disagreements about how something or other works. With a book, you'd have to wait until the next edition and then spend another $100!

It's not a new idea. The WikiBooks project has been producing wiki textbooks for a few years.