Wikibooks takes on textbook industry

Project aims to create open-ended curriculum that would offer a free, licensable alternative to traditional textbooks.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
If you found yourself needing an old biology textbook and couldn't locate your battered copy from college, you'd have a few options.

You could go to a university bookstore and snag a used copy; you could drop a few dollars on a new one at Amazon.com; or you could track down some old college chums and ask for their copies.

But if Jimmy Wales and his colleagues at the Wikimedia Foundation have anything to say about it, you could have another way to go--the Wikibooks project. It's their attempt to create a comprehensive, kindergarten-to-college curriculum of textbooks that are free and freely distributable, based on an open-source development model.

Created in the same mold as the Wikipedia project--the open-source encyclopedia that lets anyone create or edit an article and that now has nearly 747,000 entries in English alone--Wikibooks is still in its earliest stages.

Yet because of Wikibooks' digital model, in which material written for the project can be as short or as long as needed, and be easily manipulated, read and edited, Wales and others believe it can pose a major challenge to the publishing industry's hold on the world of textbooks.

"The purpose is really contained in the word 'freely licensed,' which is to make available to anyone in the world, in any language, a curriculum that they can copy, redistribute and modify, for whatever purpose they may have, for free," Wales said.

The publishing industry is "going to have to recognize that there's a fundamental shift in the marketplace," he added. "Some of them will prosper. Some of them will figure out the new regime and find out ways to add value. Others will stick their heads in the sand and get slaughtered."

The hope is that by turning the Wikibooks keys over to a worldwide community of writers and editors, the project will eventually contain tens of thousands of books and smaller entries on a wide range of topics. In each case, the idea is that any Wikibooks reader could create his or her own book or make edits to an existing title.

Wales explained that the Wikibooks authors--whom he calls "volunteers"--are professionals from many fields, college and graduate students and professors. "All sorts of geeky people, basically," he said.

Today, Wikibooks contains 11,426 submissions. The topics covered range from biology to economics in New Zealand. Because the books are digital and open source, any teacher can decide to assign one and simply point students to PDFs they can print.

But Wales is the first to acknowledge that the project is several years away from maturity.

"It's still a young project," he said. "I would consider it to be mission accomplished when we could point and say, 'Well, you could teach yourself, or someone could teach you using these materials, (anything) from the kindergarten to the university level.'"

Naturally, Wikibooks isn't the only effort to amass a vast collection of digital books. Google has been building its library and print projects since last year. But where Google's project is a digital database of often copyrighted works, Wikibooks' material is all work that has been made free to the public.

"The bigger it gets and the more people stumble across it, the more people are interested in volunteering."
--Jimmy Wales, co-founder, Wikipedia

Some in education think a project like Wikibooks gives academics new outlets for their research and puts a great deal of pressure on traditional textbook publishers to adapt to new technologies.

"There are a couple of huge tensions that exist in the academic world," said Steven Brewer, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts. "One is that the traditional model of publication as scholarship is slow. It takes a long time for material to get through the peer review process...As the idea of Wikibooks becomes more popular, we're going to see a bunch of things that are already published on the Internet start to become collected there."

Brewer also hopes Wikibooks opens up a new kind of learning opportunity for students because it leverages the power of digital information that is instantly modified and easily researched.

"There are a number of things people can do...that don't require Wikibooks to be finished yet," Brewer said. "The big one is to get students involved in producing materials (and) also vetting materials (and) also adding elaboration to materials."

He envisions teachers--at any level--asking students to examine existing Wikibooks entries for accuracy and relevancy and then appending their findings to those entries. That would allow the project to become a teaching tool and a work in progress all at once.

"Increasingly, we're going to see classes where students do that kind of work," Brewer said, "and I think that at that point we're going to see Wikibooks really take off."

Charlie Hibbard, a former high school teacher from San Francisco, agreed that Wikibooks can become a multilayered tool in a way

existing textbooks never will.

"I like the idea of using it as a tool for kids to check and then post their own alterations," Hibbard said. "It might be a really good way to give kids a couple of lessons, not only about the particular content, but also about what's the nature of public information."

Brewer also buys Wales' argument that the Wikibooks model could eventually move publishing companies away from existing business models that depend on students buying expensive books containing more information than they will use in any given course and which take several years to produce.

"The idea of just going to a book that is always going to be a year or two out of date is...silly," Brewer said. "There are going to be faster ways of getting the newest ideas."

Representatives at two leading publishing houses did not respond to requests for comment.

Hibbard said he thinks textbook publishers will have little choice but to adapt as efforts like Wikibooks gain traction.

"They'd have to do something," Hibbard said. "They'd have to respond to the up-to-date (nature) of the Wikibooks version."

Certainly, Wikibooks has several shortcomings. One is its open nature, in which any registered user can edit existing entries. That means that any entry can be defaced or, more benignly, modified by someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

Wales also acknowledges that some kinds of learning require multimedia beyond your basic wiki software tools.

"I'm learning German," Wales said. "You couldn't learn German just from a textbook...So I'm learning from audio CDs and games."

But he added that, over time, Wikibooks could be extended to include audio books.

In any case, while Wikibooks is small today, Wales argues it could one day be a relevant alternative to the traditional textbook model.

"It's growing exponentially," he said. "The bigger it gets and the more people stumble across it, the more people are interested in volunteering. So it grows in that way."