Sep 09 2008

More Thoughts on a Wiki Science Textbook

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Comments: 102

Last week I discussed some ideas I had about what constitutes good science education and offered a suggestion that might improve the current state of science education. I appreciate all the feedback and discussion, which is exactly what I asked for. I recognize this is an extremely complex topic with no easy solution and so ideas from a variety of backgrounds is useful.

My premise for that post and this one is that science education is currently inadequate, as evidenced by the high level of scientific illiteracy in this country and to some extent more generally. Specifically most students seem to graduate high school without sufficient critical thinking skills and appreciation for the process of science.

On resource that might help, I suggested, is an online science curriculum that properly focuses on teaching scientific method and critical thinking in an engaging way.

Let me address some of the specific points that were raised.

The problem is not with textbooks.

Some pointed out that there are many challenges with the educational system that have nothing to do with textbooks, even to the point of suggesting that textbooks are irrelevant.

I completely agree that the problems with education go far beyond textbooks. There are problems with the quality of teachers, that too many science teachers do not have proper science training, that school boards and parents make too many and the wrong kind of demands upon school systems, that teacher’s unions block any attempt to reward quality or outcomes, many school systems are underfunded, and some teachers find it challenging just to maintain control of their classroom, let along get any teaching done. There are also societal problems, such as the media and an anti-intellectual culture.

My point, however, was not to address these broader issues, not to suggest that any one solution is a panacea or would fix all of these ills. But rather to improve the overall quality of science education by creating a freely accessible high quality resource. Arguing that providing a free online textbook won’t solve other problems with education is a non sequitur.

It was argued that textbooks are not much used. I have certainly heard from many science teachers that they do not use the provided textbooks but rather make up their own lesson plans or find their own sources. There are clearly many excellent science teachers out there teaching good science. The point of such a project, however, would be to help those science teachers who are not so self-motivated or skilled. We want to raise the overall quality of science education, which won’t necessarily increase the already high-end.

Many factual claims were made in the comments of my last entry. I tried to find reliable references to pin down some of them. Here is a good reference from the NEA ( It relates that 47% of teachers surveyed used textbooks daily. Most of those teachers base their teaching plans on the textbook. A third of teacher say they do not have enough textbooks for their students. And there is evidence linking having too few and outdated textbooks with poor outcome (although this can be simply a marker for overall funding, and not a direct effect). On average 1% of overall education budgets are spent on textbooks.

Clearly textbooks continue to play an important role in education and the quality and availability of textbooks are one factor that predict outcome.

There is also a clear consensus that the quality of science textbooks is very low. Here the AAAS evaluated middle school science textbooks and found almost all of them to be “unsatisfactory.”

Many teacher have told me that they do not use the textbooks because of the low quality. So it seems probable that more teachers would use science textbooks if they were available, up to date, and otherwise of high quality.

The Digital Divide

One reasonable point raised about an online textbook is the lack of access to computers and the internet in underfunded schools.  Certainly, an online textbook is of no use if students and teachers cannot get online. This, however, is a separate problem (although a prerequisite one) that needs to be, and is being addressed.

This problem is generally referred to as the “digital divide” – the disparity of opportunity and education between those with internet access and those without. A wiki science textbook project would increase this divide – which is true about any valuable resource put on the internet.  I think the best solution is to close the digital divide – and many agree.

Recent surveys show that 54% of Americans are online, and there are 2 million new users per month. There are efforts to put affordable laptops in the hands of all student, and there are many programs to donate used computers to schools. The digital divide is a largely fixable problem, one that will be fixed.

It is also increasingly clear that the repository of human knowledge is rapidly being transferred online. This is happening with or without a wiki-science initiative. There are also many opportunities for new types of learning interfaces and access to information online that are not afforded in textbooks – the integration of multimedia resources, for example.

This is happening. I think it would therefore make sense, rather than try to fix outdated textbooks, to put our efforts into a solution that will have en enduring impact. An online series of textbooks would, in a way, be the last textbook, as it could be continuously updated going forward. Having a textbook frozen in time is rapidly becoming a quaint notion.

For those school systems with limited access, teachers could have access to the textbook to create their lesson plans, or even print off material for their students. So this resource would be helpful even without every student having internet access.

Also, the 1% of the education budget going for textbooks can be redirected toward building an online infrastructure. This is likely to be increasingly cost effecting going forward.

These Resources Already Exist

Several commenters pointed to online science resources that already exist. I agree, there is already a great deal out there. One of the potential advantages of a dedicated online science curriculum is that it could pull together all these existing resources.

However, I could not find any existing resource that has the quality and thoroughness necessary to replace textbooks or improve the overall quality of science education. Wiki-books, for example, has many free online textbooks. I reviewed many of the science sections. They are of highly variable quality, overall structure, and completeness. I imagined myself a student in biology or physics and then tried to use this source as a textbook, reading through many sections. I found it difficult and confusing.

The BBC resource, Bitesize, is another example. It is a decent, although very basic and incomplete, resource. As the name implies, this seems more like science nuggets than a complete curriculum.

So pieces of an online science curriculum already exist, and more are being added every day. But nothing you can point to and say to a school district – you can use this rather than buy new science textbooks.

Also, I think such a project would be an opportunity to explore the ways in which a purely online resource can be used to organize instructional information and bring together multimedia resources. Typically when a new technology is developed it tends to duplicate the older technology that it replaces, but people eventually figure out new ways to use the technology. For example, when TV first became popular, radio shows were simply transplanted onto the TV. It took years for TV as a medium to come into its own.

What I see today primarily is the transplanting of print material, like textbooks, into the internet. I would like to see the exploration of how digital online media could be used without the constraints of a textbook format. For example – rather than having different level school books for different grades, each subject could be designed with increasingly deeper and more complex sections, and each grade (or even student) could dig as deep into the material as is appropriate.

Or – lesson plans could be independent from the material. The material can be stored systematically (like an encyclopedia) but then a lesson plan would link to parts of the material to build a grade-appropriate course.

These are just ideas – I would like to see what could emerge from a cooperate project of scientists and educators.

Scientists make lousy teachers.

This brings me to my last point – I wrote that part of the goal of such a project would be to allow scientists to teach science. But I was very careful to qualify this to “those with a special talent and inclination for teaching science.” So the point that some scientists cannot teach is irrelevant.

Also – I never meant to imply that scientists would be doing this alone, without educators. My premise is that in order to do a great job teaching science one needs to know science and be a good teachers. A scientists who cannot teach or a great teacher who does not understand science won’t cut it. I have encountered scientists who think their knowledge is enough, and I have encountered educators who think their ability to teach is enough. They are both wrong.

An alliance between working scientists with an inclination toward teaching and working teachers and other educators with an inclination toward science seems like a natural solution. This project could bridge the gap.


The problem of improving science education is clearly complex and I do not pretend that this type of project would even address, let alone solve, all problems. But I do think it could be a very useful component of improving science education. I also think that that pushing educational materials onto the internet is a natural and inevitable progression, so we might as well get it right.

But as I said in my original post – this is in the idea phase. In this phase critical feedback is very important – so keep it coming.

102 responses so far