Wikibooks from a Student Perspective: Not a Wacky Idea After All
By Jamie Kaufman
On the first day of Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education (ECI 301), a course offered by Dwight Allen of Old Dominion University’s educational curriculum and instruction department, students are introduced to a new style of collaborative learning. As a class, the students are given an unusual assignment: write your own textbook using online software known as a wiki.
Right now you may be thinking, “Excuse me? Students? Writing their own textbook?”
I was definitely skeptical when first introduced to the process. Typically, experienced professionals write textbooks. The students in this course are, for the most part, young prospective teachers. Honestly, how could we be expected to write like an expert in the field of education?
On the other hand, my curiosity was through the roof! As a student in the course, I did, indeed, become a contributor a co-author, if you will to the second edition of the wiki created by Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education and hosted on the Web site www.wikibooks.org. This article will discuss the many dynamics that, through use of the Wikibook, set this class apart from any other I have ever encountered. The course is taking collaborative learning to a new level. Professor Allen and graduate students Yun Xiao, Peter Baker and Patrick O’Shea, in their unpublished manuscript “Wikibook as College Textbook: A Case Study of College Students’ Participation in Writing, Editing and Using a Wikibook as Primary Course Textbook,” say that by using collaborative learning individuals can understand other people’s perspectives and “engage in communication that functions to transform all parties involved.”
As wikis (like Wikipedia) gain popularity, it is important to accurately describe the landscape. A Wikibook is an online open-content textbook to which both teachers and students contribute. Following instruction from the teacher, students create and edit entries to the online books that can be used in the classroom for various purposes in many disciplines. Wikibooks require that their contents not be taken from previously published textbooks or annotated texts. Wikibooks are designed for freshly written articles with in-text references that are neither nonfiction, copyrighted nor original research, according to Wikimedia Foundations Inc. Anyone can register for free at the Wikibooks Web site.
In the summer of 2006 a team of ODU faculty, graduate students and undergraduates designed the format of the book for our ECI 301 course. It consisted of 20 chapters with approximately 135 subtopics covering an array of issues in American education. The subtopics were titled, but other than that, remained a blank slate. Through the Wikibook, students embarked on a collaborative journey during which they would write on a researched topic, read and edit each other’s work, and finally, rate each other’s articles.
With my 25-page ECI 301 syllabus in hand, I sat down and began to explore the wonderful world of Wikibooks. The syllabus explained the process of signing up for and posting an article. Interactive tutorials were made available on Blackboard (ODU’s course delivery software package) to guide us through the process, and between the professor and our teaching assistants all of our questions were answered in detail. The support for this course proved to be outstanding, which was crucial for such a new project.
Each student’s article is required to be 1,000 to 1,500 words long. Once we have chosen our topic, it is in our hands to determine what specific material the article will contain. For instance, I chose the subtopic, “How should teachers teach ethics?” It was up to me to decide what information about this topic would benefit prospective teachers.
Each student is required to cite at least five sources in the article. Two sources must be scholarly, two popular and one of the student’s choice. A scholarly source is defined as “peer reviewed,” and popular sources can be found anywhere on the Web a personal interview, newspaper article, etc. All sources and the article as a whole should be credible. With a multitude of resources available from the library and its online databases, students today have an abundance of research and expertise at their fingertips. Plus, every student enters school with a wealth of knowledge and personal experience that can be readily applied to such a collaborative process.
As part of our assignment we are to devise five multiple-choice, application-level questions, as opposed to questions that can be answered by knowledge or recall. A tutorial on Blackboard gives us question-writing guidelines to follow. Fifty percent of the questions on our quizzes, as well as on the midterm and final exams, will be based on these student-devised questions, with the other 50 percent based on questions pertaining to class lectures. High-quality question writing is a useful skill for this particular project, but it’s also a skill every teacher should possess.
To give the articles some flavor, students are required to add sidebars. These can be quotes, video clips, pictures, comics, graphs, etc. The goal is to break up the text of the article, so that it resembles a traditional textbook.
Feelings Prior to Writing
Though enthusiastic and interested in the assignment, I was also apprehensive, as I had never been a part of a project like this before. It had been a couple of years since I completed my undergraduate work and had written a research paper. I feared that my work would not be up to par with traditional textbook writing. I was also more than a little anxious that my work would be read by so many people my peers, nonetheless.
By societal standards, I am considered a digital native. This is based on the fact that I was born during the time when computers were becoming accessible tools. Still, I do not consider myself technologically savvy, nor am I an advocate of adults or children sitting at computers all day. Even though I struggled at first with learning how to navigate through and interact with the Wikibook, each time I tried something new, I felt more and more like a computer expert. Really, I was creating my own Web page!
About three to four weeks into the course, our Wikibook article is due. In the meantime, we begin reading and rating the most successful articles from the previous semester. After we have completed and posted our research, we start to read and rate each other’s articles.
Using the rating buttons posted on the page of every article, we rate our peers’ work on a 5-point scale, specifically targeting importance, interest and credibility. As I mentioned before, I was extremely apprehensive about this part of the course. Since fellow students had never graded my work in the past, I was nervous not only about sharing my work, but also about their critiques. I felt they would grade my article more harshly and critically than a professor would. Plus, this would be the critique of an entire class, rather than that of one faculty member.
At the beginning of the semester, we were told that if we believe our grade (based on peer ratings) is unfair, we can ask the professor to re-grade it in a more traditional way. I felt sure I was going to need such an appeal process, which would entail the professor and graduate assistants reading the article and deciding what they think is an accurate score. We were assured that we would not receive a lower score than the one determined by our peer group. In my course, only two students out of 192 complained about their grade. For the record, I was not one of the two. After review, the professor agreed with the peer reviewers, and the final scores for the two students remained the same.
All in all, I was impressed by the work of my fellow students. On average I rated them highly. Regardless of the topic, I rated articles lower in interest and importance if they were poorly written, disorganized, or if they did not include a sidebar. I also took points off in the credibility category if they did not provide the required amount of sources or if I felt that the information from their sources was inaccurate.
After all of my fear and apprehension, my article was rated extremely well. I was grateful for the opportunity to receive feedback from my professor and graduate assistants during the editing process, but getting an “A” from my peers was honestly much more meaningful.
Comparisons to Traditional Textbooks
There are many perks to using this online textbook. According to the unpublished 2007 manuscript, “New Levels of Students’ Participatory Learning: A WikiText for the Introductory Course in Education,” written by Professor Allen together with O’Shea, Baker and Daniel Curry-Corcoran, due to our ability to access information from the Internet, teachers have been able to supplement out-of-date text with up-to-the-minute, groundbreaking research. They further note that, through use of the Wikibook, students have become “consumers of knowledge,” as well as collaborators in the development of this knowledge.
The textbook previously used in Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education cost about $100. That’s a lot of money for a college student. The only book students in this course are required to purchase now is a $15 paperback written by Professor Allen.
Another benefit of the course is that using an online textbook is a responsible approach for an environmentally focused generation.
Likewise, today’s students enjoy working on computers. It comes naturally to them. One student interviewed during the production of the course’s first Wikibook said, “Sometimes after [the professor’s] lectures, I go on to the Wikibook and see what it says about [the professor’s] lecture topic. I’d never do this with a regular textbook, because the computer is so much more convenient.”
Another student stated she believed the Wikibook to be more current than traditional textbooks. She went on to say, “It’s more valuable for people who are planning to teach in the near future to have information that’s new that hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for years like some textbooks.”
A third student, quoted in “Wikibook as College Textbook,” commented, “Articles are short and easy to understand. I can sit down and easily read a bunch of Wikibook articles and not spend too much time on it. When I’m reading a textbook, it is not broken down into small sections, and I always find myself referring to a dictionary every other page just so I can understand what the textbook is talking about.”
Development of Critical-thinking Skills
According to surveys administered at the end of the first course, 57 percent of the students agreed that the Wikibooks process helped them develop their critical-thinking skills; 30 percent were neutral. From my perspective, using the Wikibook in Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education allows students to create, evaluate and analyze the content, and also to apply, understand and remember the information and skills to which they are exposed.
To speak frankly, this is the first time I had read the majority of a college textbook. My peers and I share a sense of ownership of our wiki textbook. As noted in the “Wikibooks as College Textbook” manuscript, “students actively define their personal learning needs” and find the best way that these needs can be met. My experience has proven this to be true. During this learning process, the manuscript further notes, the “instructor changes his or her role from that of a controller to that of a sharer.” The professor and the students of ECI 301 will forever be a part of what was taught during the course.
In the end, I found this course to be (take a deep breath) refreshing! Even after four years of undergraduate courses, this was by far the most innovative class I have ever taken. The Wikibook was, and continues to be, a conversation piece among my friends and family. I believe that the development of a Wikibook is a positive approach to the social and cultural foundations of a 21st-century education.