The Wikimedia Foundation–the group known best for the open-source, freely licensed encyclopedia project Wikipedia, which invites users to write, edit, and expand upon encyclopedia entries to create a collaborative, free-to-use online information resource–has begun a similar initiative for textbooks.

If the effort catches on, it could have a profound impact on the for-profit textbook and online content markets for schools.

Wikibooks invites users to collaboratively write and edit freely licensed, online K-20 textbooks and related nonfiction, such as literary criticism, for all subjects. The project uses wiki web-publishing software, which permits users to read, edit, and write the eTextbooks themselves. Wikimedia describes the software as “a vast simplification of the process of creating HTML pages, and thus a … very effective way to exchange information through a collaborative effort.” The intent is that online communities of experts and novices will police the eTextbook content for readability, accuracy, and the latest advances in the field.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikimedia, said he believes the Wikibooks project is representative of the changing landscape of information and services in the digital age.

“I think that Wikibooks and projects like it will challenge licensed textbooks in the same way that Linux [the open-source computer operating system] and other free software and licensing models are challenging the software world,” said Wales. “I don’t know where it’s going, but things are definitely changing.”

Angela Beesley, a member of the board of directors for Wikimedia, said she believes Wikibooks will work in tandem with existing textbook markets and serve as a guidepost for industry transformation.

“Wikibooks will complement the traditional market for textbooks, and also approach a new audience,” Beesley said. “As we move toward life-long learning, the old textbook market that targeted high school children will need to expand, and collaborative projects–where the distinction between learner and teacher decreases–will grow to meet a new market, as well as providing content more cheaply and more quickly and in more languages than the traditional textbook industry could do.”

Wikibooks is still in its early stages. Since 2003, volunteers have written nearly 12,000 book modules for expansion by other users.

The featured Wikibook for the month of October (featured books are established by user votes) is meant to teach an introductory course on the Mandarin dialect of the Chinese language. According to its summary, the textbook contains “several weeks’ worth of material, including detailed grammar explanations with example sentences, audio samples, and instruction on writing characters.”

Newly added Wikibooks include subjects such as “signals and systems,” “colonising Mars,” “folkstyle wrestling,” “systems of logic,” and “Linux commands.”

Not everyone believes Wikibooks will be adopted in K-12 education.

Because of the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), “in many states … there is so much of a drive to teach to the exam,” said Andy Updegrove, co-founder of Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a technology law firm and an internationally recognized expert on standard-setting and open-source organizations.

“Part of NCLB judges the schools as to whether performance goals are being met,” explained Updegrove. “Since your funding is at stake, [textbooks will be evaluated as to] whether or not you’re fulfilling the mechanistic way to teach to the test.”

But, “for the same reason that you could imagine [Wikibooks] being not feasible in core courses, for non-core courses–music, computer science, areas where you don’t have to teach to the test–I can imagine this being successful,” Updegrove continued. “To teachers, I think it would be tremendously appealing. The good teachers have fun when they get out from under mandatory curricula.”

Because the content is freely licensed, “it can be freely adapted by teachers to their local conditions, without having to get permission,” said Wikimedia’s Wales, speaking about the local adoption of Wikibooks.

“When you get feedback from teachers on the local level, the cycle can be much faster than it could ever be in a traditional publishing environment,” Wales said.

Updegrove said he believes it’s possible Wikibooks will be more easily drawn into higher-education curricula.

“Textbooks are really expensive and get out of date quickly,” he said. “If people thought a Wikibook was of adequate caliber, I think it would be a slam-dunk in universities … In community colleges and public colleges, where the reality of the economy is bearing down on education, you can imagine how successful a good Wikibook could be.”

April Hattori, a spokeswoman for McGraw-Hill Education, a supplier of traditional textbooks and online curricula, said she did not believe Wikibooks pose any threat to the traditional textbook market.

“Regarding the Wikipedia proposal, [McGraw-Hill believes] that providing effective media for classroom instruction involves more than just providing a list of facts. We provide not only learning materials, but also a host of different products, including professional development,” Hattori said.

“All McGraw-Hill materials are correlated to state standards, professionally put together, credible, and include scientifically based research. In addition, our fact check avoids the whole credible sources issue you have when dealing with a Wikibook,” she said. “Our professional development program helps people understand how to use the materials to improve student performance.”

She concluded: “In terms of enhancing student achievement, McGraw-Hill does a lot more than just putting something up on the internet.”

Wikimedia’s Wales dismisses such criticisms.

“We face challenges or questions about the quality. It’s very similar to the free software world. Microsoft puts out complaints about Apache, the new Linux. There are problems; nevertheless, the world marches on. We do our best work and hope people like it,” Wales said.

“The main thing is, the availability [of Wikibooks] for open peer review means that whatever ends up going in ends up being part of a peer production process,” he added. “The content is mediated by the work of the entire community. The real answer is that the proof is in the pudding.”

Given the predictable, though reasonable, concerns of those in the traditional textbook market, vested parties appear to be proceeding with cautious optimism–if not about the Wikibooks themselves, at least about the value of Wikimedia in general.

“Wikipedia is democratic at the user level. The Wikipedia is a snapshot of the collective consciousness of a society at any point in time,” said Updegrove. “It’s as if you could preserve the brain of that society. It evolves as that reality evolves. Not only that, but it maps the consciousness in societies around the world, because they don’t translate–rather, they write new [entries].”

“Wikibooks offers the opportunity to collaborate in the process,” Beesley said. “Learners can become teachers, as everyone is enabled thorough the wiki model to actively participate in the learning process. Learners will gain a lot from being participants rather than simple consumers of knowledge.”

Links:

Wikibooks project
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Main_Page

Gesmer Updegrove LLP
http://www.gesmer.com

McGraw-Hill Companies
http://www.mcgraw-hill.com