Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wikibooks: Chicken and the Egg

I'm at the Wikiconference NYC today and just got out of a very interesting keynote speech, and Q+A session lead by Jimmy Wales. As can be expected in a room full of Wikipedians, lead by the man who founded Wikipedia there wasn't a whole lot of talk about the various sister projects such as Wikibooks. However, mention of Wikibooks was raised at one point during a question about textbooks and instruction.

Jimmy Wales stabbed on a point that I've known for a while but haven't really vocalized before. The problem with Wikibooks, he says, is an issue of K-12 adoption. To be adopted in a classroom a book must comply to a pre-set standard curricula. Without curriculum compliance, there is no hope whatsoever that the book will ever be used in an actual classroom. Without a target audience, it's hard for editors to be motivated to write books, and the cycle continues. This problem is compounded by the fact that many existing curricula are copyrighted and not available to us for free use.

Wikibooks has done pretty well so far in the area of college-level textbooks. Many of our editors are college students or college professors (or graduates who managed to retain some of their knowledge), and there has already been good feedback from college courses that are using our books as part of their programs. So, there's a feedback loop here that reinforces and encourages more development in these books. Our collection of college-level books therefore is of a much higher quality then our collection of K-12 books.

People have said in the past before that Wikibooks has a dearth of quality books for young children. People have also mentioned in the past that books on Wikibooks don't follow standard curricula. It's the interplay between these two items that is something I've never quite put my finger on before, but that Jimmy nailed. This doesn't necessarily explain why Wikijunior is so stagnant (since children younger than school age don't need to follow a curriculum), although Part of Wikijunior's target demographic does include school-aged children as well.

Luckily, I don't think that this problem is a hopeless one. I think that in time we will cross the hurdle and break the feedback cycle of stagnation. A big part of this is the license migration, so now Wikibooks is more compatible with CC-BY-SA content (which is how most other open-content textbooks are licensed). I also think that there are efforts that can be made to conform to existing (although admittedly not often used) free standard curriculums, and also to put pressure on governments to make more existing curriculums freely available.

I would love to hear more ideas on this topic, to try and start brainstorming ways we can improve our K-12 books.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Licensing Vote Results

The results of the Wikimedia licensing vote have been made public today. From Robert Rohde on foundation-l:

The licensing update poll has been tallied.

"Yes, I am in favor of this change" : 13242 (75.8%)
"No, I am opposed to this change" : 1829 (10.5%)
"I do not have an opinion on this change" : 2391 (13.7%)

Total ballots cast and certified: 17462

This is quite a good result, and one that I am happy to see. The WMF board has not made a final decision on the matter, but I sincerely hope that they pursue this license migration.

Update: The board moved pretty quickly on these results, and have already written and approved a resolution:

Whereas the Wikimedia community, in a project-wide vote, has expressed
very strong support for changing the licensing terms of Wikimedia sites,
and whereas the Board of Trustees has previously adopted a license
update resolution requesting that such a change be made possible, the
Board hereby declares its intent to implement these changes.
Accordingly, the Wikimedia Foundation exercises its option under Version
1.3 of the GNU Free Documentation License to relicense the Wikimedia
sites as Massive Multiauthor Collaborations under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license, effective June 15, 2009. The Board
of Trustees hereby instructs the Executive Director to have all
Wikimedia licensing terms updated and terms of use implemented
consistent with the proposal at

So it looks like Wikibooks (and all other GFDL WM projects) will be migrating to CC-BY-SA-3.0 dual-licensing by June 15th. Quite a cool thing to happen!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wikibooks First!

I got a great email today from Cbrown1023. He did a Google search and a result from Wikibooks appeared first, even before any results from Wikipedia! What's funny is that it's not on a topic that I would consider to be a particular strength of our collection. Part of me hopes this page is not being heavily linked to as an example of the worst parts of Wikibooks, but when you see the page in question you might have that thought too. Another reminder of how much more work we need in order to make a great library of free books!

My next point of interest is to wonder why Cbrown1023 was searching for information about nuclear war? Do the WP people know something us WB folks don't?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Categories Are Doing Great

Thanks to users like [[User:Adrignola]] and [[User:Darklama]] (and others, sorry for those I didn't mention), the Wikibooks category system is much cleaner and more usable now then it ever has been in my recollection. Also, if you active Darklamas new Color Coded Categories gadget (which is deceptively simple), you'll get a great category browsing experience.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wikimedia NY Meeting

Wikimedia is having a meeting at Columbia University on Sunday May 17. Here's the announcement that was sent out on the mailinglist:

Come one, come all!

Our next meeting for Wikimedia NYC is Sunday May 17 at Columbia University.

This is a meeting for volunteers to the projects of the non-profit
Wikimedia Foundation, and everyone else too, who has ever looked at
Wikipedia and wondered what's going on behind it.

One big topic of discussion, out of many, will be preparing for our
'Wiki-Conference New York' at NYU this summer.

Other topics will be recent experiences at the WMF Chapters meeting
and in cooperating with local groups in NYC, photography for Wikinews,
and discussing issues relevant to Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia

We welcome all guests. If you support open education and free
culture, we are your people. If you have a project you want to work
on with us, this is a great opportunity to get acquainted. If you want
someone to give a talk or teach a class with an inside view of
Wikipedia, meet your volunteers. And if you just have any questions,
we'd be glad to try to answer them.

Remember, the agenda here is up to you! I encourage anyone who is
interested to sign up to give a presentation or suggest a topic for
general discussion at our wikimeetup page (given below).

California Open Textbook Initiative

I don't know if other people have heard about this one yet: California is pursuing open textbooks to help cut costs. I've been saying for a long time that the traditional textbook pricing model isn't really scalable, especially not for money-strapped urban school districts. So, it makes good sense that California would be looking to use free alternatives instead of paying premium prices for texts.

The cynic in me obviously worries that government bureaucratic processes will miss the point and ruin the whole exercise. Crowd-sourcing and open culture only work if you let the people in and let them self-govern to a degree. If the state of California tries to impose all sorts of oversights and restrictions and controls on the process, they will spend more money and end up with lower-quality books then if they just stuck with proprietary books.

I would be interested to hear if anybody knows anything about this California textbook project, and if there is anything that the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikibooks can do to get involved. I think we have a great infrastructure set up and a great environment for developing quality books for a great price, and it's that infrastructure that places like California need if they want to succeed in lowering the cost of education.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Public Education Woes

This is a little bit off topic for this blog, but it's something I wanted to talk about anyway. I read a disheartening news story today about teachers and how it's ridiculously hard to get rid of the ones that are mistreating or simply failing their students.

I know that a major impetus for me to start working at Wikibooks was the textbooks that I was using for my various classes. In short, some of them were absolutely terrible and I was forced to search the internet for quality alternatives. I don't know if the situation is specific to engineering books, but I suspect that books in that subject area are some of th worst offenders. Since I've started writing engineering books on Wikibooks a few years ago, I can't even count how many thank-you emails I've received from students who were also desperately searching for quality books to replace the lousy ones they were forced to use (and pay huge prices for) in school.

So that's my short off-topic news post for today. I like to think that we can keep this kind of thing in mind as we do work on Wikibooks and elsewhere to create quality free educational materials. After all, the real issue of concern is the students, many of whom are children and won't have the foresight to pursue education if it isn't properly provided to them by teachers and parents.