Musings about lifelong learning, technology, and higher education
Note: I wrote this article in 2015 as part of a course assignment for Web 2.0 tools in education. Some of the information might have been updated.
I did some research on the vast world of Wikipedia and discovered some projects that I had never heard of. As a librarian who serves online students at two institutions, I’m always looking for new ways to integrate open access electronic information sources in our library’s portal. My project with one institution has been to scan sites like Open Library and Project Gutenberg and add records to books freely available on the web (basically anything published before 1923). So my interest in these two sites is both professional and personal. Let’s see what I found…..
Wikibooks’ slogan is “Open books for an open world”. The site boasts have over 2,000 books, mostly of the textbook variety. I get the sense that this project was intended to replace printed textbooks. I clicked on the sociology section and began browsing the collection of books. There were several sections related to sub-fields like Systems Theory, Social Psychology, and Stratification, which read like typical Wikipedia articles. Then there was a textbook for an introductory sociology course, which was a featured textbook since it was complete. The language of this textbook reads much like a typical sociology textbook – it has all the familiar sections and covers the same basic topics. I give you an A- thus far, Wikibooks. I then opened a ‘freshly started book’ and found a book on Sociology of Religion which seems to have been last updated in 2011(?). So far, I’m not to impressed – Wikibooks seems to be like that had ambitious plans but has since imploded. I have heard about several open access textbooks projects, most of which followed the wave of MOOCS, but Wikibooks is not one of them. I wondered if Wikibook’s ‘market share’ of creating free textbooks has been edged out by competitors, like OpenStax where the content is free AND vetted by subject matter experts.
I decided to check out another subject hoping for better results. Since this site was dedicated to creating textbooks, I decided to open a page on Portuguese language, something I’ve always wanted to learn. I was very elated to discover this! There were two full-length courses in Portuguese, one for Brazilian Portuguese and one for peninsular Portuguese (i.e. what is spoken in Portugal). The textbooks read much like the Spanish textbooks I read as a undergraduate; they focused on basic greetings, masucline/feminine nouns, and pronunciation. Though it took some digging, I found an online pronunciation guide for Portuguese words. I’m beginning to see the potential for an online textbook. I think its nifty that a Wikibooks textbook can combine text and audio – this is a definite limitation of printed textbooks.
I perused a few categories on the rest of the site and found books that had been started 5 years ago and never finished, like the Constructivist Theories in Education. Many of these books had inconsistent formatting and the book itself was not very different from the Wikipedia entry. My overall impression of Wikibooks is that it had a grand vision but has lost steam. Discovering this site in 2015 is much like rediscovering an abadoned them park or finding your GeoCities page from high school. As I was perusing the site, I thought of a video on the Onion about an archaeologist’s discovery of Friendster – an early social media site. Overall, I would give this site a C – it needs serious improvement, but its worth revisiting at some point.
Wikisource is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation that began in 2003 to digitize primary source texts. All of the texts are classic texts that are licensed under a Creative Commons-Share alike license. According to their Wikipedia page, Wikisource does not allow books that were digitized in other libraries. This is odd since most Wikimedia projects want to amass the world’s scholarship even if has been published in other sources. A Wikisource book contains the original illustrations in the book and the text itself in Wikipedia’s markup language. Most of the books are well-organized and easy to read. Take, for example, this children’s book by Ruyard Kipling. One of the criticisms of Wikisource is that the works are not vetted for accuracy; amateur editor are transcribing entire texts and even translating them without supervision. As a result, some of the works most notably the English translation of a Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew, has several well-noted errors. On the other hand, Wikisource could be used to transcribe PDF scans of books into a format that is easily readable by screen readers for the visually impaired. Older texts with antiquated fonts and brittle, deteriorating pages cannot be easily scanned like newer books. So I think there is some merit in using Wikisource. However, Wikisource’s collection of books is miniscule compared to OpenLibrary (1 million books) or Google Books(130 million). Plus, its easier to scan texts of multiple books using a Google search – I’ve searched for a phrase and Google has picked up the phrase in the books it has already scanned! The future is now, folks!
My overall impression of Wikisource is similar to Wikibooks, it seems like a project that has lost steam and has been eclipsed by other projects. I don’t think that I will attempt to created records in my library’s catalog to the either of them – the works are incomplete, potentially inaccurate, and the Wiki formatting deprives the reader of the original character of the book. Quality PDF scans of books, while not perfect for the aforementioned reasons, give us at least a surrogate experience of the original book: the yellowed pages, the ancient script, and original images. Having classic books transcribed into Wiki source by novices seems like a recipe for disaster. I’d trust a PDF scan of a book over a Wikisource book. My grade for Wikisource: C-.