By the Book

A new project could revolutionize the way students learn.

As every college student knows, the price of textbooks is more obscene than anything Larry Flynt could conjure up. But the problem is infinitely more acute for learners in impoverished nations. "International editions of textbooks are generally half the cost of U.S. editions, which is great if you're in the U.K.," says Don McCubbrey, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Electronic Commerce at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. "But if you're in Uganda, the cost of even a half-price textbook might end up being 20 percent of annual per capita income there."

Under these brutal circumstances, the only reasonable charge for a textbook would be nothing -- and that's precisely what budding scholars in sub-Saharan Africa and areas in similar straits would pay if the dream of the Global Textbook Project is realized.

An undertaking conceived by McCubbrey, University of Georgia prof Rick Watson and colleagues at Ohio University and the City University of Hong Kong, the project (on the Web at www.globaltext.org) envsions textbooks written and updated by volunteer academics employing the sort of wiki software popularized by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written by the site's users. One benefit of this approach would be timeliness. Although knowledge in many fields changes rapidly, getting this information into new textbook editions often takes years -- and online updates could happen much more quickly. But the main advantage involves fees, and the lack thereof. Students and educators would be able to utilize this material free of charge -- and for those who don't have access to computers, McCubbrey and company are exploring a variety of options inspired by the $100 Laptop Project inaugurated last year by faculty at the MIT Media Lab. Within weeks, Watson will get a firsthand look at an e-book reader manufactured by a company in China; it's reportedly the size of a paperback book but can hold 100,000 pages of data. Right now they go for about $300 a crack, but Watson is hopeful that this tag will drop to a low-enough level during the next few years that devices preloaded with textbooks could simply be given to needy students.

Don McCubbrey is on the case.
Tony Gallagher
Don McCubbrey is on the case.

"It's a grand vision," Watson concedes, "but I don't think the problem is solved by a small vision."

The Global Text notion sprang from a request by several of Watson's students that he teach a course in Extensible Markup Language (XML), a computer data-storage format that's been around for several years. When Watson failed to find a decent textbook for the class, he decided to have the students use wiki to write one themselves. The resulting text, which can be perused at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/ XML, turned out so well that Watson and colleagues such as McCubbrey began fleshing out the format with the world's poor and undereducated in mind. They've already lined up profs in the U.S. and more far-flung locales to pen a chapter apiece of the first textbook, which focuses on information systems; it should be completed by year's end. In addition, folks in Malaysia, Tunisia and beyond have committed to translating the text into Chinese and Arabic (Spanish is also on the wish list), and a pair of software engineers at China's Wuhan University are expected to modify the wiki software to Global Text's specifications.

Eventually, McCubbrey and Watson hope to create 1,000 wiki textbooks -- enough to support two years of undergraduate study in most subjects. They can begin moving forward in earnest if they can raise $400,000 in seed money, and they are actively making proposals to companies and foundations with a Warren Buffett-like desire to better the planet via wise infusions of cash.

If Global Text works internationally, there's no technical reason why its textbooks couldn't be adopted by American universities, resulting in mammoth savings for U.S. students. Problem is, that prospect would upset the powerful forces that profit from the textbook biz -- particularly publishing houses. Watson would like to steer clear of such a confrontation for now. "We don't want to make a full-frontal assault on the publishing companies," he says. "That would give us opposition that would be harmful to the much bigger goal of supporting the developing world."

McCubbrey feels the same way, and not just because he's written a few textbooks himself. Yet he wouldn't mind forgoing future royalty checks if he could help students overseas, and on these shores, too. After all, he notes, "If I thought money was the most important thing in life, I wouldn't be in academia."

Don't kill the Messenger: The May 11 version of this column focused on the High Plains Messenger, an ambitious attempt to create a full-service online newspaper with no print equivalent that focused on a single metro area -- Colorado Springs -- rather than a national/international audience. The site, www.highplainsmessenger.com, was staffed by extremely bright, creative people, and financing seemed secure. Nevertheless, Messenger co-founder Joseph Coleman, a Colorado Springs restaurateur, admitted the risks inherent in such a bold and untested concept. "There's nothing like what we've done in the United States so far," he said, "and that can be dangerous."

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