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Traditional textbook construction typically follows a simple, yet proven, paradigm whereby a group of experts with advanced training and experiences apply their collective expertise toward constructing the required content. An important benefit of this top-down approach is the intrinsic accuracy of the content and a coherent direction of presentation. The detraction is that significant effort and time is required and the slow response to account for new educational approaches or topics of interest with a standard 4-5 year edition cycle. The success of the open-access Wikipedia encyclopedia project demonstrated that alternative development approaches can be similarly powerful if done right.
The ChemWiki follows a “bottom-up” modular development scheme that will be implemented in parallel at multiple schools. This inter-institutional development scheme provides the direct involvement of a broad student base. This breadth is absolutely essential if the ChemWiki is to successfully address the needs of students from very different backgrounds. Students will be encouraged to participate in Module construction via incentives like extra-credit or monetary compensation. While all four campuses will contribute at level
The utility of the ChemWiki is intended to encompass all branches and levels of Chemistry as broadly defined as possible. The enormity of constructing Modules capable of addressing the broad range of potential Wikitext is staggering, especially given the requirement that the topics in many Modules will be duplicated to account for different levels of sophistication (freshman vs. senior undergraduate student) or expected dependence of material discussed earlier. However, our progress in the development of the ChemWiki textbook demonstrates that many important steps in achieving this lofty goal can be realized without onerous effort if a different approach to construction is used.
To feasibly implement a project of this enormity with a small team of experts and limited financial resources, an exciting parallelized plan is proposed involving simultaneous development efforts on multiple fronts including: composition, figure construction, homework design and solutions, proofreading, typesetting, and editing. The Wiki architecture for collaborative database generation will be extended toward constructing an online textbook coupled with the contributions of students and faculty alike. Since the Wiki architecture reduces much of this effort because of its well-established format and intrinsic ease of construction (including what-you-see-is-what-you-get or WYSIWYG capabilities), significant effort is still required for the bulk composition and editing.
The guiding principle underlying the Wikipedia construction approach is that contributions of a select few number of experts can be substituted with contributions with many numbers of enthusiastic and driven non-experts or partial-experts. Accuracy is then established by removing incorrect or unclear content via peer or collective review. A recent study demonstrated that both “top-down” Encyclopedia Britannica and “bottom-up” Wikipedia approaches exhibit similar accuracies. A clear benefit of this “bottom-up” approach is that content can be rapidly constructed or modified to account for new discoveries and advances or to correct incorrect information (essentially near instantly). Unfortunately, a major detraction is that accuracy is not assured, due to the large number of contributors and lack of a central authority to vet content.