Using a Wiki: A Textbook Case

 
 
By Stan Gibson  |  Posted 2006-11-20
 
 
 

Wikis are carving out a niche for themselves in enterprises as the best tool for sharing knowledge to create a common product. So it should come as no surprise that creating textbooks might be an ideal application.

Just as Wikipedia collects and presents the combined knowledge of thousands of contributors, so textbooks typically are collaborations of several writers and editors.

The idea of using a wiki to build a textbook came to Richard Watson in 2004 when he couldnt find a good textbook with which to teach XML.

So Watson—the J. Rex Fuqua distinguished chair for Internet strategy and director of the Center for Information Systems Leadership at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, in Athens—told his class to write the text.

"I said, Heres the structure of the book. Ill write Chapter 1, and someone else has to write Chapter 2. I was surprised how motivating it was and how good a job they did," said Watson. Subsequent classes took the completed textbook and made improvements to it.

That success inspired Watson to launch GlobalText, an effort to create free or low-cost textbooks for students in developing countries.

"A textbook thats $100 in the U.S. sells for $50 in Kenya, but thats not affordable," said Watson, who is editor in chief of the project.

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"Its not that publishers are trying to get exorbitant profits; they just cant operate in those markets."

GlobalText has two books in progress: a business-fundamentals text and an introductory IT text.

Inspired by Wikipedia, Watson decided to use wiki technology.

"It doesnt necessarily have to be wiki, but it has to be something that enables collaborative authoring and sharing," said Watson. For now, MediaWiki fills the bill nicely.

To find authors, Watson posted a message to various universities, asking for volunteers.

One who stepped forward is David Bray, a doctoral candidate in IS at Emory University, in Atlanta, and an eWEEK Corporate Partner. Bray wrote the IT textbooks first chapter, which is on innovation.

For Bray, the project satisfies a deep desire to solve world problems through collaboration.

"With regard to 9/11 and anthrax, there was enough information to prevent those events, but it wasnt being shared," Bray said. "Wiki technology inherently recognizes that no one person has all the information or all the facts. We must collaborate or die."

The IT textbook has 18 chapters and 18 different "gatekeepers," one for each chapter.

"You need to break the work into manageable chunks if youre working with volunteers," said Watson.

He said he is unsure of the exact number of contributors to the book, since the gatekeepers are in charge of who contributes what to the various chapters.

Working with a wiki has shown Watson and Bray the need for some improvements. Watson said the wiki data model needs to recognize that the work is a book, not just a collection of pages, and it should allow searches within parts of the wiki, within the entire book as well as across all books on a given topic.

Such a data model would also be the basis for more flexible privilege controls, Watson said, adding that he and others may make such changes to an open-source wiki platform.

Bray said wikis have an inherent weakness regarding the question of veracity of content. One remedy, he suggested, would be to enable wiki readers to vote on content, such as is found at digg.com.

With the initial draft of the IT textbook due by the end of the year, Watson said several iterations might be needed. "Its like software; its really Release 1. It might take three releases," he said.

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