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2012 September 2

Wikipedia books, another approach for a free/cheap textbook

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:06
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve been thinking about another approach to providing a low-cost textbook for the circuits class: bundling a number of Wikipedia articles into a Wikipedia book, like the Introduction to Electronics one.  The idea is an appealing one, as many of the Wikipedia articles are excellent (better written than many textbooks), we can customize what topics to include, small errors in the text can be corrected, and students can either access the “book” online, download it in in PDF, ZIM, or OpenDocument format, or even pay for a printed copy.  The downloaded or printed copies will be frozen, while the live Wikipedia book gets updated every time one of the contained articles is edited.  We could provide frozen copies on the course web site, as a precaution against major rewrites removing information we expect students to read.

The Introduction to Electronics Wikipedia book does not have exactly the subjects we would need for our course, but several of the articles there are appropriate.  One attraction of this approach is that we can tailor our book to have exactly the content we need (assuming the articles we need exist) in the order we want. We can design our course by listing the topics we need in the order we need, and automatically have a text that matches. Given the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of our course (from basic circuits to EKG design, with side trips into electrodes and possibly fluidics modeling), we’re going to have to cobble together multiple sources anyway, so a Wikipedia book may be a good way to create the main text.  No matter what text we use, we’ll have to supplement with manufacturers’ data sheets, which can’t be included in a Wikipedia book because of copyright restrictions.

One disadvantage of Wikipedia books is that the articles in Wikipedia are by different authors and have no implicit ordering, so concepts cannot be developed in a gradual manner.  Individual articles are written at very different levels of sophistication, and some articles will have only a few sections that are relevant to the course.  The book would not be as smooth as a well-written textbook, but better than many of the poorly written ones on the market. I believe that we can add some manually created text (part of the book, but not part of Wikipedia) to introduce chapters, but I’m not exactly sure how (probably it involves including pages that are part of Wikipedia user space rather than public space).

Note: Wikipedia books are different from WikiBooks, which are from a project to create crowd-sourced free textbooks.  The electronics books currently available from WikiBooks are very incomplete and not as well written as Wikipedia articles, so I don’t think that they will be useful this year.

I started playing a bit with Wikipedia’s “Book Creator” and found it to be a very awkward interface.  Clicking on pages to add them to the book being created worked ok, but dragging the pages around to reorder them did not and the claimed button for adding chapters never appeared.  Furthermore, once you save a draft book, the book creator assumes you want to start a new one, so clicking on pages can’t add to an existing draft.  It seems that the book creator is damn near useless after the first 5 minutes, and after that you just have to edit the book like any other Wikipedia page.

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5 Comments »

  1. Hi,
    I agree that WIkipedia books are a pretty useful way to provide a free textbook for a subject. I started to make a WikiPedia textbook of Computational Biology. I found the book creator worked pretty much as advertised.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Alexbateman/Books/The_Wikipedia_Book_of_Computational_Biology
    I would be happy to try and develop the content of this or related books.

    Comment by alexbateman — 2012 September 3 @ 05:19 | Reply

    • I was not able to drag the sections around or organize articles into chapters with the Book Creator under Firefox. Once a draft is saved, Book Creator can’t be used any more.

      I’ve started a draft of a text for the course using just the Wikipedia editor, and have run into some problems.

      • Text can be added to the Table of Contents, but the PDF version does not include either the Table of Contents or the added text.
      • Only full articles can be included, but many are extremely long, and only a subsection is relevant to the book. One can link to just a subsection with internal anchors, but the whole article is included in the PDF
      • Adding text is somewhat difficult, requiring pages to be added to Wikipedia (perhaps in the user’s sandbox?).
      • Some ideas that would be useful for the course do not appear in Wikipedia, as they are not of general enough interest for an encyclopedia

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 September 3 @ 06:12 | Reply

  2. Wikipedia Books allow a layer of curation that can certainly facilitate learners to get a first feel for the ost important topics given a particular field of expertise.

    Comment by admin — 2012 September 3 @ 06:22 | Reply

    • I’m not sure that Wikipedia books provides a fine enough level of granularity to guide readers to the “most important” topics. In an attempt to be comprehensive, many Wikipedia articles go off in directions that are not productive for a particular course or learning objective. For example, if I want to introduce the concept of a “current source” in a beginning circuits course, the first part of the “Current source” Wikipedia article is relevant, but most of the article requires concepts that come much later in a circuits course.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 September 3 @ 07:12 | Reply

      • I agree that Wikipedia articles do go off on tangents to what you may want to say. But they are a potentially quick way to produce a rough guide to a subject area that we can make freely available to anyone in the world with an internet connection. In the developing world it can take months for text books to arrive and the cost can be prohibitive.

        I’m not sure if you can incoprorate other content from User pages. That would be a very useful way to incorporate non-encyclopedia content such as Forewords. For more bespoke courses you might want to consider putting content into, or reusing content from Wikiversity.

        Comment by alexbateman — 2012 September 3 @ 09:28 | Reply


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