Education can play a fundamental role in reducing poverty, but high-quality and up-to-date textbooks are often too expensive for most people in developing countries.
To make education more accessible, a professor in the University of Georgia Terry College of Business is spearheading an effort to produce free online textbooks using a modified version of the Wiki software that powers the Web site Wikipedia.
“The textbook model doesn’t work for developing nations,” said Rick Watson, J. Rex Fuqua Distinguished Chair for Internet Strategy and director of the UGA Center for Information Systems Leadership. “They can’t get the books down to a price that people in the developing world can afford. You essentially have to give the books away.”
Through what he’s dubbed, “The Global Text Project,” Watson and an international team of professors aim to create a free library of 1,000 electronic textbooks covering subjects typically encountered during the first two years of college. A prototype text is already complete, and work is underway on the first book in the series.
“People have been very enthusiastic about this project,” Watson said. “They see the value of the solution and they can see that this model can work.”
Watson explains that textbook publishers usually reduce the cost of their textbooks by about half for the developing world. A biology book that sells for $108 in the U.S., for example, costs $51 in Uganda. But the gross national income in Uganda is only $250 per year, which means that a single book eats up 20 percent of the average person’s income.
Through the Global Text Project, students can go online to access the Wiki-based textbooks rather than having to purchase traditional textbooks. Each textbook will also come in a pdf format so that it can be inexpensively printed for those without Internet access. The books will be authoritative and credible because an academic in the field will oversee the creation of each chapter. The Wiki software will also be modified so that only the editors will be allowed to accept changes that any reader might suggest.
“The problem with Wikipedia is that anyone can go in and change it,” Watson said. “And that’s not acceptable for a textbook. We still want the spontaneity of someone being able to go in and make a correction. However, we want to show that change with, say, a different color so that the reader is warned when a change hasn’t been approved yet by the editor of the chapter.”
The prototype book was created in 2004 because Watson couldn’t find a comprehensive textbook for a graduate level XML programming class he was teaching. Each student was assigned to write chapter, and Watson served as editor-in-chief. The book, “XML: Managing Data Exchange” (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/XML), turned out so well that it is still used in classes at UGA today. Each class that uses the text makes improvements on it, leaving it in better condition than they found it.
The project took on a broader scope after Watson told his friend Don McCubbrey at Denver University about it. He said, “This is a wonderful idea. Why don’t you expand it?” Watson recalled. “So I started out with some modest ideas for a couple of books and then I thought about how significant the problem is. And if you have a big problem you have to have a big solution.”
Watson and McCubbrey formed a core team that also includes Wayne Huang of the University of Ohio and Christian Wagner of City University of Hong Kong. Because they are all information systems professors, they decided that their first text would be on that subject. To speed the textbook creation process, 17 professors from five countries are each writing one chapter. Watson expects the first book to be complete by January 2007.
The team has set up an international advisory board to oversee the creation of future textbooks. Members of the board are from universities in South Africa, Columbia, Egypt, Malaysia, Uganda and the United Kingdom.
The project has received donations of time and money from several individuals in the business and academic worlds, and Watson said the first text will serve as a proof of concept that he will use to solicit support from corporate sponsors. Ideally, Watson said, each of the 1,000 texts will have a corporate sponsor.
The initial books are business texts, but the project is also recruiting volunteers to help write for subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, math, history and English. The texts will initially be written in English and then translated by volunteers to Chinese, Spanish and Arabic.
“Our role is to create an infrastructure to enable professors and students around the globe to come together to create something of value to many others,” Watson said. “It’s engaging many for the benefit of many more.”