Wikipedia as a Textbook?

I have a lot of big ideas about Wikipedia.  I have a lot of big ideas about a lot of things, but Wikipedia gets a lot of them these days.  One of these ideas is that Wikipedia can be used to replace textbooks.

Wikipedia as a Textbook

I am focusing on colleges and universities for this big idea because there is a lot you might not know about the current state of the textbook industry.  First, and foremost, purchasing a textbook for one class can cost as much as $500 per book.  I know, you are thinking that at the end of the semester you can at least sell it and make back a good chunk of that.  That was true 20 years ago when I was in college, but not now.  Publishers figured out a way to work around this: they keep changing the book.  They don’t update the book with new and valuable information.  They simply change the layout, add in new pictures, etc.  They give the professor a free copy of the updated version and the professor updates his/her syllabus with the relevant pages.  Now the students need the new book.  They don’t know nothing more than page numbers have probably changed.  They just know the professor says they need the most recent edition and that one costs $500.

When they go to sell it at the end of the semester, nobody will give them anything near what they paid for that book.  Why?  Because they won’t be able to sell it again themselves.  The next year will come around and there will be a new edition again.  The professor decides what the bookstores purchase.  The professor doesn’t necessarily care about the cost of the textbook nor do they have the time to go through and see if there are important changes worthy of a new edition.  It’s a cycle that students are fed up with.  Professors may not care, but university administrators care.  They care when large numbers of students complain about things.

There have been solutions like open access text books which can be free or cheap.  Some professors find what they need from the library’s collection.  Others put together packets of articles and chapters from books and sell those for less money.  My idea is that Wikipedia becomes the text book.

This is not unheard of and there are a few things you need to keep in mind.  First, students use Wikipedia already.  For example, students taking an anatomy class go to Wikipedia to learn about anatomy.  It’s easier for them to understand and navigate.  Far more often, they Google what they are looking for and it just takes them to Wikipedia.  Second, Wikipedia articles fit under the Creative Commons copyright, which means they can be remixed and reposted anywhere.  This is why you might see weird encyclopedias that are clearly just copies of Wikipedia.  Many people have taken content from Wikipedia and made it into books.

There are problems with this idea.  Primarily because Wikipedia is constantly in a state of flux.  The #1 problem, in my opinion at least, is that someone needs to be taking care of the entries identified for a textbook.  You might think that would be easy to do.  You might think the professor will obviously want to do that.  This is, in most cases, a bad assumption.  Faculty, for the most part, are not sure how to interact with Wikipedia.  Professors are busy with other classes, their own research, their campus obligations, their own lives, or (in the case of adjunct professors) the needs of other universities.  Integrating Wikipedia into a classroom as a textbook is a process that needs a lot of consideration.

As you read this I am getting ready to go to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for a conference.  My co-presenter and I are taking 5 minutes to begin this discussion with researchers who focus on qualitative research methods.  This mean, when they do research, they utilize methods like interviews, observation, focus-groups, and surveys.  They are the researchers who tell stories.  When I do research, I am a qualitative researcher.  We are going to encourage them to start editing Wikipedia, give them a small edit-a-thon (or Wiki-hack as they are calling it), and opening up the conversation.

I am hoping for people to want to fight with me about this.  Why? This is merely an idea right now.  I need to keep fleshing out this idea and I need push back to be able to do so.  I need to know why people think it won’t work.  I need to hear the negatives so I can find solutions or think it out.  After the blog tour I will share the details of the conference with you.  Wish me luck!


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