Turning Wikipedia into textbooks: Tools, Ideals and Accessibility

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Wikipedia just announced that you can download collections of articles in the ePub format. That reminded me that it has had a curation feature called Book Creator for 2 years. I don’t think it has been getting as much use as I would expect but now with the ePub export, I think it has the potential to transform how Wikipedia is used as a tool for education.

How does it work?

So how does it all work? First you need to create a book. This is a combination of easy and clunky. I recommend that you spend 3 minutes with this how to page to avoid a lot of false starts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Books. I speak from experience.

Basically, you turn on the Book Creator under the >Print export feature in the left hand column.

Then you go to the page you want to add to your “book” and click on the “Add to a book” button. Simple really.

It is easy to add related pages because you don’t have to go to them individually, just hover over a link to a page and an “Add link to book” will appear.

You can then drag the pages up and down to reorder them and organize them into chapters.

You can download the resulting book in various formats, now including ePub, and even have it printed by a company called PediaBooks.

It really is dead easy and a rather powerful way of creating an open educational resource.

Shortcomings and rough edges

As I mentioned above, while simple, the Book creator is more than a bit clunky.

I created 2 books in about 30 minutes, so it is fast, but I did notice the following rough edges:

  • The ePub download link does not appear on the savedfrom book page. You have to have the Book creator open to see it. Which means you never see all the format options in one place.
  • When you try to close the Book creators you are warned that the book you created will be deleted. But it won’t. It will be saved and you can get back to it through your Contributions link.
  • You can create chapters but there is no possibility to create further subsections
  • The chapters are really just markers and when you move them up and down, the pages under them don’t move with them
  • You can reorder the pages but there is no obvious interface for it, you just have to hover over the page link and grab it (this is also an accessibility issue – see below)
  • As far as I can tell, there’s no link back. It would be nice if each page listed which books it has been made a part of.
  • There is no way to annotate your choice, e.g. add a short introduction to each page, explaining its inclusion and pointing out limitations.
  • When you launch Book creator, the page you are on is not automatically added to the book

Accessibility

There are several accessibility shortcomings, as well, both with the interface and the output.

  • The Bookcreator does not seem to be usable with Keyboard only (for instance when you want to reorder the books)
  • When exported as PDF, the PDF has no structure to aid navigation
  • When exported as ePub, the full navigation of the book including the Wikipedia pages is not preserved. This can be retrieved using the Generate TOC from headings feature in Sigil (http://code.google.com/p/sigil)
  • The chapters are added as Titles and not part of the heading structure, this means that all page headings are still level 1.

My books

You can check out the two books I created here. They are:

The potential and alternatives

Host your own Book creator with MediaWiki

Because this feature is part of MediaWiki (http://www.mediawiki.org) the open source software that powers Wikipedia, everyone can now have a collaborative eBook creation environment. I am considering installing it on my server to give it a go.

Imagine that universties would have servers like these where class notes would be collaboratively created and faculty and students could collate them into course materials, textbooks and readers every year.

Now MediaWiki is a bit bare bones when it comes to these features but it is something that is easily deployed even on a quite basic server.

Booktype

There is an alternative open source software called Booktype (http://www.sourcefabric.org/en/booktype) that is much more userfriendly if not as flexible and might be prefered for this purpose by many. I was part of a book sprint that was using it and it was a great experience. But unlike MediaWiki, which will make do with any LAMP server with PHP, it is written in Python and requires at least 3GB of RAM on a server (which is more than I have on this virtual machine).

There is a free server hosting Booktype available on http://www.booki.cc and it also powers the excellent Floss Manuals.

My favourite feature in Booktype is the ability to set versions and put out releases of your books. This combines the best features of software versions and book editions. I think this is pretty essential to the future of textbook publishing.

Anthologize in WordPress

Anthologize (http://anthologize.org) is a useful WordPress addon that will take existing posts as well as external sources and collate them into a book that will export in various formats. It is still in alpha and suffers from many shortcomings itself but is the easiest of the 3 to install if you already have an WordPress site with admin rights and can get you from blog to book in about 5 minutes (assuming you blogged in a Book ready format).

Visionary Conclusion

I hope more teachers will try to create materials from Wikipedia for their students and I hope that they will make it a better resource in the process.

I imagine a world in which every teacher can create her own textbook as easily as I did above from good resources and that she and her students will edit and remix it as part of the learning process instead of just passively “taking it in”.