Can we use social networking to build better textbooks?

About 7 years ago, I attempted to start a non-profit organization dedicated to producing peer-reviewed open-source textbooks.

While the organization received considerable support (and several submissions) from like-minded academics, in the end the project fizzled due to logistics. I had a background in traditional textbook publishing, and I was following their labor-intensive model for producing books, which doesn’t work very well when you’re producing a product you plan on giving away for free.

Wikibooks has made an admirable attempt to produce textbooks, but unfortunately, the textbooks I’ve seen there don’t really hold a candle to professionally-produced texts. While it’s great that Wikibooks has created an Introduction to Psychology text, just making a book doesn’t cut it. It needs to be a book people want to use. In this case, the paucity of visual and instructional aids make it unlikely that this book would actually be used to teach a course. A collaboratively-produced online text should be better than its print equivalent, not just a semi-workable substitute.

The other problem I see with the wikibooks model is that there’s not much room for innovation. In a wikibook, you’re limited to the tools available on their website, and you’re limited by their production model, which tends to lock in to a particular structure for a book.

Traditional textbooks (and wikibooks) start with a table of contents. The book is then written to fill out the contents, and rarely strays from that original structure. Even revised editions of a text might change the order of a chapter or two, but rarely stray far from the initial conception of the book. A truly innovative text that can grow and adapt needs to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of approaches to teaching a class.

This is where social networks can come into play. Rather than building a text the traditional way, modules can be constructed independently. These modules can then be collected and adapted to a number of different course syllabi. There might even be multiple modules covering each topic.

Where would these modules come from, and how would they be organized coherently? The rudiments of both are already freely available online: Science bloggers readily share tons of useful information on blog posts. Much of this is tagged by topic on sites like ResearchBlogging.org (okay, I can’t think of any others, but that’s a good start!). Similarly, lots of science teachers share their syllabi online. All that’s needed to create some very engaging course materials is some way of linking the two, and some way to adapt the blog posts into true teaching modules.

In fact, the framework provided by a wikibook could offer a great start on a textbook-like product, but I’d like to see online texts that make more use of the capabilities of the internet, using graphics, video, animation, and interactivity to create a richer experience for students — one that would not only compete with, but ultimately surpass traditional texts.

The key to all of this is some way to combine the existing resources online and leverage them with social networks — either ones that already exist, like Twitter and Friendfeed, or a new one that offers additional functionality.

Comments? Suggestions?

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One Response to Can we use social networking to build better textbooks?

  1. Dave, have you look at the book “The Complete Guide to Google Wave”: http://completewaveguide.com/ ? It’s written by two authors, not a larger group of people, but they used MediaWiki to produce a text that is visually appealing and that people want to read.

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