Wikipedia as textbook

I’ve been kicking around some ideas to avoid (for the students) the incredibly high cost of the texts I was planning on using next semester in Modern Physics and Theoretical Mechanics. I wanted to get some of the thoughts down here and get some feedback, if possible.

Why do I like free? Well, it is nice to be nice to the students, and it’s nice to know that they’ll actually have the book, since often they just don’t buy it. But it’s also great to have a book that allows you to digitally augment it and to project in class. I used that to great effect last semester in Physical Optics with this awesome free optics book.

Old Modern Physics

For Modern Physics, I was trying to decide between what I usually use (Eisberg and Resnick), what my colleague most recently used (Serway), something with spin first (maybe the 6 ideas book, though I think that’s too low of a level), and something totally free.

For now, I think I’ll use the 1961 early version of the Eisberg text, because it’s free and in pdf form online. Flipping through it, it seems to be close enough to the ’80’s Eisberg and Resnick text, plus it has a chapter or two on relativity, whereas the later one relegates that to a terse appendix.

It’s interesting, of course, to think about a 50 year old book used in a “Modern Physics” course, but most of us know that old joke.

Wikipedia is what they read anyways

I recently read how wikipedia is darn near comprehensive. I was pretty impressed with the numbers in that article, and it caused me to reflect on how I almost always find things that I’m looking for when I use it, especially when it comes to the topics I teach. I’ve used it a ton when preparing lectures/class activities, as there are often different explanations of things I’m not as familiar with than the text I’m using.

What I wondered is whether I could leverage Wikipedia to let me go without my $250 text for Theoretical Mechanics ($90 is the cheapest I saw on Amazon for my usual text). I did a quick google search along the lines of “combine wikipedia articles” and found out that wikipedia itself provides a “create book” option. So I dug in, and, from a technology perspective, I was pretty impressed. It doesn’t just paste in the multiple articles you flag, it really re-formats them for the printed page, and strips out things that wouldn’t make sense (like the table of contents links at the top of each page). It also lets you organize the material by adding in chapter headings, and it makes a nice table of contents for the entire “book.” You can download it as a pdf or as a few different e-book formats.

My first attempt at using this was to try to recreate a chapter from the text I use. I chose the “calculus of variations” chapter, and made some decent headway on wikipedia. I then went on to look at the “central forces” chapter. Again, I was mostly happy. You can see the result of both of those here.

I moved on from there to the first (non-math) chapter on Newton’s laws. I wasn’t as happy here because the articles I found seemed to have too much tangential material. Here’s my stab at that. If I were to use that, I’d likely have to filter the pages I would want my students to read before coming to class.

Focus on standards

Then I hit on a really interesting idea. What if I used my standards for the class as the focus, instead of the chapters in the text that I’m used to? This idea felt very freeing to me, as I realized that even the text I use really has some material that causes my students to lose focus from what we’ve collectively decided is important. I figure I could collect articles that would provide help/context/explanation for a particular standard, and likely augment that with examples, videos, etc from me. For the moment, at least, I’m going to give that plan a try and see how I feel about the wikipedia books that I’ll create.

Additional issues

There are some issues with the wikipedia books I thought I’d mention here as well. First, the hyperlinks are mostly lost, making the books less useful than just a collection of hyperlinks pointing to the original source. On the other hand, the formatting looks great, and the students can have a small pdf with exactly what’s needed when they come to class to work on activities.

Second, you have to create the books all in one sitting, as you can’t seem to rely on the cookies to remember where you were at. One book seemed to be remembered for a couple of days as I kept going back to the site, but then later that same day it just disappeared. If you’re an “authorized” user of wikipedia (at least 4-day-old account with at least 10 edits), you do get a save button. However, I’ve never edited wikipedia so I’m not sure if I want to get to the 10-edits level. For this new standards-based approach (as opposed to the chapter-based approach) I think doing it in one sitting is likely very possible.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear what you think about these two approaches I’m considering for next year. Do you try to minimize student costs? Do you assign secondary (or more) texts? Do you trust Wikipedia? Have you tried forgoing texts entirely for courses like this? Do you see these sorts of texts as great reference materials that physics majors should own?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in physics, teaching, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Wikipedia as textbook

  1. Another option is OpenStax. It is a Creative Commons textbook. OpenStax is supported by the Hewlett Foundation & Gates Foundation. Free pdf download. It looked like a solid textbook to me. Only two of their textbooks are finished, but there are more to come.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I like the idea behind OpenStax, but my mid- to upper-level courses aren’t a big enough target for them, I would think.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    I want to see what you come up with for a standards-based textbook. That sounds cool!

  3. Is there anything in CK12 flexbooks?
    Free is good, especially at the cost of textbooks and seeing that they do not match standards 1-1

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Unfortunately, none of the books in CK12 would have the material I need for my two courses. Also, it’s unfortunate to see that their icon for “physics” has a prism shown with light beams that are not optically correct.

  4. vanbraman says:

    Wikipedia is easy to edit and I am sure that you can find 10 simple things to get you to that mark quickly. Just look for some spelling or grammar errors and make simple edits to start. You will be comfortable making a few edits in no time and will have your additional functionality to test.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yeah, I’ve been hearing similar ideas from some local colleagues. I’ll probably jump on this soon, just to have that extra save feature.

  5. I’m not a teacher, but I do have to do a lot of fact-finding/research for my job (Why are you asking me? You’re supposed to be the expert! You don’t know? Well, what makes you think I know? Ah… well, I’ll just get on with finding the answer then, shall I?) I also have to train various grades of trainee, mostly post-graduate, in information-handling skills.

    I love Wikipedia. I would marry the man who invented it, if my heart wasn’t already promised to the guy who started Google (and not just because he’s rich). Wikipedia is great for getting the basics, or for finding out whether that word you didn’t even recognise is animal, vegetable or mineral.

    However, I would never, ever use Wikipedia as a final authority. Most of it is pretty good, but the fact that anyone can edit it means that not only can you not guarantee that the information will be accurate and up to date, but you can’t guarantee that a page will be the same (and as good) today as it was yesterday.

    If you’re going to use Wikipedia to construct your own textbook, then fair enough, since you will presumably be vetting all of the pages that you include. However, I would not recommend letting students loose on it as a resource, other than with the health warning that Wikipedia is a great place to start, but totally inappropriate as a final destination. Always double-check everything with a reputable, trusted source.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I like the vetting I’m able to do, but I do recognize that my students would use wikipedia anyways. My standards-based grading really helps me identify when students have learned from or used faulty sources.

      • Yes – we don’t tell them NOT to use Wikipedia (no point if you know they’re going to do it anyway); we teach them how to use it safely. We also have a list of recommended free information sources which are validated. Our concern is to make sure that students learn the limitations of the information sources that they’re using, so that they can ensure they use the correct source for the type of information they require, and their answer will be reliable. In school, getting the wrong answer because you used a dodgy reference source just loses you marks; out in the workplace somebody could end up dead.

  6. My Uni (The University of Queensland) strictly prohibits the citing of Wikipedia for anything (we all do use it of course when we want a quick overview of a topic and signposting to other references that we can cite!) – I think it’s a great resource but as it’s not universally peer reviewed content, like the previous comment from Theophania, I’d agree that it should only be used as a quick reference not as a validated resource.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      One interesting thing about the “create book” feature is that the articles as vetted by me are “frozen in.” However, I wouldn’t mind if my students used the current version in their screencasts for me. If they use faulty info, I’ll be able to point out that in my feedback. As for this replacing a good reference text (“validated resource”), I’ve noticed that my students don’t keep their texts anymore, so what’s the difference?

  7. I always thought Wikipedia had the most accurate answers…then I saw the ‘Edit’ buttom and felt so betrayed! haha Great post, thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  8. iamninjas says:

    Great discussion! It’s been about 6 years since I have been out of the educational world, but I’m still interested in how students are learning. Once you have created a text book on Wikipedia does it change as the original content changes? Also, what is your school’s policy on using online sources such as Wikipedia? I think this is a step forward as long as sources are credible and you yourself are confident in your own knowledge to structure a text book. Maybe it can be used as a supplemental source to test the students’ response.

  9. L. Palmer says:

    The Wikipedia book seems an interesting tool. One of my college professors had a great perspective on Wikipedia – you can start there and get an overall idea of what you’re looking for, and then use the sources and links to do deeper research on the topic. Do not cite it as a source, but use it as a beginning.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yeah, that’s exactly how I tend to think about it. I’m also impressed with their pages that describe how to write your own article. It’s amazing how much they stress that you have to cite everything.

  10. These are very interesting ideas. I would have loved to do enter wikipedia, if only my students get to have easy access to the internet more often. There have been lectures already saying that wikipedia may be the new front line of education — giving more access for students. There no longer seems to be a problem with correctness of the information as it can be peer-reviewed by everybody in the world.

    I, too, do not follow one textbook. Rather, I aggregate several materials from different texts. As you said, it’s very freeing. It also gives me the freedom to choose topics that can be relevant to the students (but I guess this one’s much easier for me as I’m teaching a social science course). As it is, I have a readings pack for my students (which is very expensive for me as I have to print them out), but it is much cheaper for the students rather than buying all the books I used.

    Anyway, I’d like to share with you a site which aims to gather free resources on the net. Not sure if you’ve already encountered it, but here it is:


  11. segmation says:

    I think it is pretty scarey that Wikipedia is so accurate. I guess there are no more encyclopedia out there like World book?

  12. Gibble96 says:

    Sometimes I wonder why I get assigned textbooks at all. I almost always end up not buying it and using the Internet instead to find all my resources, and I do great in school. My least favorite classes are always the ones that require students to buy these big, expensive textbooks, and the ONLY reason I have to buy it is because homework is assigned out of it.

    Personally, I think your idea to wield Wikipedia as a replacement textbook is an ingenious idea. We need more electronic based resources to cut down the absurd costs students have to suffer.

    On that note: why don’t they just sell Kindles at the book store and sell textbooks for like $10-5 on there? Makes more sense to me >_>

  13. dlaiden says:

    Don’t know about Physics, but my Philosophy teacher has personally recommended Wikipedia for us in regards to Political Philosophy. Article contributors are usually people who have extensively researched their subject field for whatever reason, and a lot of articles are amazingly accurate. Surprising, but useful.

  14. Kennedy says:

    Reblogged this on Hakuna Matata Tours in The News. and commented:
    I leke the post

  15. teashut says:

    I LOVE wikipedia. I use it everyday in college even though they vow against it here. I would say so long as you do your fact checking with friends and other sites, you are fine to use it. As for making it to replace your book, I would say that’s a bad idea. Books are not THAT expensive, and its better to know you have exactly what you need and not some lie someone switched the Entry to. But I just learned a ton about wikipedia from you.

  16. Thank you for enlightening article. Did not know re. Wiki book option. By all means minimize cost and show students how to move to paperless society and extend life of some trees. Great post. Thank-you.

  17. I wish that these open source free texts were available when I was a college student, I spent a lot of money and resources on education, I would of just skipped all the hoop jumping to get a piece of paper and just gone for in depth learning on my own. Where I work now at we are doing a lot of work on teaching kids ages 5-9 the fundamentals of movement in relation to sports so they develop the skills necessary to succeed. If there was some way to make all of it free, so kids could learn the fun way.

  18. Hannah Burke says:

    I am at university and I still turn to Wikipedia in my time of need, most of it is very useful as a starting point

  19. blueblog2012 says:

    Wow your ideas are so progressive! As a university student myself, I would love if my profs took the time to create a low cost textbook in the form of a “Wiki book”. I believe a text of this nature could be wonderful for the natural sciences, I’m not as sure how well the approach would work in the social sciences, my field of study, however it would be worth a try!!
    Thanks for sharing your interesting ideas!

  20. honeycombe says:

    As a poor college student myself, I really appreciate how far you are willing to go to make sure your students are able to afford their textbooks. I personally see no problem with utilizing Wikipedia in that manner, however, I would check on it every now and then to make sure that no one decided it would be funny to be a troll and screw with some of the information. In all honesty though, I don’t think that wrong information on that site stays very long. OCD people like myself catch on and fix it. Plus, of all things to screw with, why would someone pick the physics part of Wikipedia? Wouldn’t it be funnier to mess up the articles about poop, butts or Obama/Bush? I have been a firm believer in Wikipedia for over four years and it hasn’t led me wrong yet.

  21. deWriterMD says:

    Reblogged this on MetaRead360 Small Press presents and commented:
    NOTE: I started a WikiText but never got back to it. The trick, I think, is to get a couple people involved in the project.

  22. Eri Berry says:

    I always believe in (almost) free education and other freebies.

    I’m glad you’re making an effort on how to make education less costly for your students. But like what others said, wikipedia is a great start but it can be edited by anyone else. I edited some entries back when I was a student (circa 2005 -07). It should not be the final authority on things.

    Back then, I could always tell who did their reports and assignments based on wikipedia. They’re very good with all those condensed information but their work lacks critical analysis. I was from the Arts and Letters. Some students would mouth of all these information but when you actually ask more details or frame your question more critically, they were at loss.

    As mentioned above, it’s a great starting point but should not be the final authority. It would be great if scholarly journals would also be more accessible to students.


  23. BagsFoSho says:

    I’m so happy you have opened my eyes to this create a book feature on Wiki. This makes beginning research a lot easier. I may even have one printed and sent to me since I like reading hard copies so much better. Very cool.

  24. NoMi ALi says:

    That sounds cool! 🙂
    You can visit my site here… and please don’t forget to comment about my efforts

  25. I’m always curious about what motivates people to populate the content of wikipedia –

  26. I think a wiki text is a great idea, and I would actually *hope* that a couple of things are inaccurate. You can use the text as a way to teach the students, or learn along with them, about how to read and use wikipedia. Given that they would probably mostly go there first, why not explore how it is more or less useful?

    Also: when it falls short, you can use the opportunity to show them how and where to look deeper.

    physics + critical thinking + research skills = good life skills for a physics student

    On another note, I wonder how common alternative texts are in physics these days. We’re just now gearing up to update this resource:

    Click to access hstextbooks.pdf

    and I want to make sure that we are able to address it.

    …Come to think of it, make sure you report back!

  27. Jay Loizel says:

    Hmm….Let’s go for Alternative Learning……..Go go go…..

  28. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:

    Let’s help out our Physicist. Shall we?


    The problem I have with using Wiki is simple. The standard for knowledge is who is the biggest bully …. with the thickest skin.

    I used to edit on Wiki, I found quickly that my areas of passionate study (Original and secondary sources mostly as well as independent testing) often got me into passionate disagreements with experts.

    One was on Religion, not as directly related to Physics, although I do like what Einstein said about Science and Religion.

    Another was probably apropos.

    I conducted some significant research into weapons whilst in the Army. Access to manuals was easy, and I love to read. I also have a prodigious memory.

    I noted there were some serious inconsistencies in an article upon Biological Weapons. I corrected them, minor corrections; because of my previous Religious experience on Wiki, I was small on my corrections and included a reference.

    ‘An expert’ came along and massively changed what was written, including what I had written.

    I took the dialogue to the discussion page.

    Our friendly (not so friendly actually) expert worked in a specialty related to Chemical and Biological Weapons research …. and we thought we did not have that anymore? Did we?

    I pointed the greatly less esteemed colleague (academically, I would never want to risk contamination of myself to practice such things) to pages of specific references.

    He came back with a gruff “I didn’t know that.”

    How can a PhD know ‘that little?’

    So, the real depth of the problem is that your students might not have the true fortitude to be able to wade through the mistakes, and correct assertions, of others.


    How about your opinions?

    Is wiki worth a go of it?


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  30. bighos12 says:

    Wikipedia is not a creditable source, I don’t trust it at all.

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