An Interview with Curtis Bonk: A Look at Wikibooks and Wikibookians

An Interview with Curtis Bonk: A Look at Wikibooks and Wikibookians


Michael F. Shaughnessy - July 14, 2009
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1)   Curt, last year you published a paper with Mimi Miyoung Lee, Grace Lin, and Suthiporn Sajjapanroj on Wikibookians? Now your team has two more in press. What exactly are Wikibookians and why are they important?


I have been doing research for three or four years on this topic now. A wikibook is an online book to which anyone can read or contribute. In our research, Mimi Lee, Grace Lin, Suthiporn Sajjapanroj, and I define a Wikibookian as someone who designs, coordinates, contributes to, or edits one or more wikibooks. Typically, they are the ones who decide a book is needed on a topic and then proposes to build one in a wiki. Such a person might solicit help from others or do most of the work alone.


As a whole, these are highly ambitious people who want to better the world and help people learn something in which they have a special talent or expertise. They are doing this to make a meaningful contribution to the world, not for financial gain. While Wikibooks are typically not peer reviewed, Wikibookians are authors of knowledge. As such, they play a role in society since this content is free and easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Wikibooks creation and use will most assuredly increase as a larger percent of the planet obtains access to the Internet.


2)      So where do these Wikibooks come from?


Several places. The Wikimedia Foundation (, which brought us Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikiquote, and so on, also created the Wikibooks Website (see For books for younger children, there is Wikijunior ( The Wikibooks site was launched on July 10, 2003.


It seems that some people involved in Wikipedia had created textbooks that they wanted to make available. They approached Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation and, hence, Wikipedia, about this and soon there was the Wikibooks Website. The rational was that textbooks are far too large for Wikipedia to handle. As of February 2007, there was 24,000 pages or chapters of content for over 1,000 books in 1,000 books in 120 languages. By July 4, 2009, this grew to nearly 40,000 pages or chapters of content in Wikibooks in English alone written by over 6,000 authors. The English pages get 16,800 hits per hour or about 4 million hits per month. The next most popular are German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Japanese, and Dutch.


I talk about many of the resources of the Wikimedia Foundation and how wikis can help transform education in Chapter 6 of my new book, The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education (for more details, see .

However, I elaborate more on the wikibooks in the e-book extension I am doing of The World is Open book. The e-book extension will appear in a month or two at the website.


In case you were wondering, the Wikimedia Foundation did not corner the market on wikibooks. You can create wikibooks with nearly any wiki tool that you find. We have used Wikispaces for some of our work; especially for the initial drafts of student chapters. When the chapters are completed, we typically upload these chapters to the Wikibooks Website as part of a completed book. Many other people use Wikispaces (, WetPaint (, PBWiki (, or TikiWiki ( for their books. Some of these tools like Wikispaces, WetPaint, and PBWiki are hosted services so you do not have to worry about having programs or content on a server. We recommend such an option for those who are novices in this area or a tad nervous about your technology skills or support.


Another research team has been formed to look at which of these tools early elementary teachers are using and how they are using them. Fascinating to hear so many stories where young kids are writing to a more global audience and learning to collaborate online.


3)      I am a low tech guy in a high tech world. Where would I find these Wikibookians and what would I find?


Grace Lin at the University of Houston (now at the University of Hawaii) approached me about a wikibook project a few years ago. My colleague, Mimi Lee (also at the University of Houston) and I thought it would be a good way to experiment with our own teaching and do cross-institutional collaborative projects. Mimi and I are not techie people either but you learn but trial and error. In the first wikibook project, Suthiporn Sajjapanroj developed some supports and job aids for students, but it was an optional project and few participated. In the second and third wikibook projects, another person on this research project, Nari Kim, developed even more detailed job aids to help both us as well as our students work in the wikibook environment. Nari worked hard to scaffold student work. This was critical to our success!


If you don’t have such job aids and other support, once you arrive at the Wikibooks Website, you can go to the Bulletin Board ( or Community Portal ( in the Wikibooks Website. You can also click on the “Contact Us” ( link found there. There is solid support.


If you are using Wikispaces, there is a help button and a tour. We often skip all of this support and have students help us out when and where we need it. When in doubt, just ask for help.


Now if you want to find a Wikibookian, there is a user list at the Wikibooks website ( Names highlighted in blue are active users (at least once). When you locate a Wikibookian, their information page will tell you which books they are working on. You can correspond with them or offer help.


4)      What are the positive factors, negative factors and concerns about these wikibooks?


We found dozens of pros and cons. On the positive side, people list characteristics like ease of use, global collaboration or support, a history page so you can revert to previous versions of a document if you do not like the changes that are made, and the quick editing process. With a wiki, you can have your classes work with their peers from around the world on a document like a course glossary, class agenda, or final report. They might also write a book or critiques of a book of someone else. Instructors, too, can collaboratively plan and share projects. In effect, a wikibook is a way to share perspectives, ideas, and even aspects of cultures. And it is a highly generative or creative process.


Mimi Lee and I did exactly that in our classes. In one project, our students worked with each other to critique an existing wikibook on learning theories. Then we edited another such wikibook, before finally having our students write chapters for their own Wikibooks. We even had a highly interactive videoconference at the end with Indiana and Texas students to celebrate completion of the wikibook. Fascinating project! But I could not have done it without my great colleagues. In another project, students in Indiana worked with students from Taiwan, China, and Malaysia to write a book on the Web 2.0. And now they can continue to improve it each semester.


While we have experienced many high points in teaching using wikibook activities, are many potential problems or challenges that I need to mention. Mimi, Nari, Grace, and I actually talk about the tensions and challenges in our latest two publications in the journal The Internet and Higher Education as well as an upcoming book chapter. See below for these references.


Bonk, C. J., Lee, M. M., Kim, N., & Lin, M.-F. (2009). The tensions of transformation in three cross-institutional wikibook projects.  The Internet and Higher Education, 12(2). Available:


Bonk, C. J., Lee, M. M., Kim, N., & Lin, M.-F. (in press). Wikibook transformations and disruptions: Looking back twenty years to today.  In H. H. Yang, & S. C-Y. Yuen (Eds.), Collective intelligence and e-learning 2.0: Implications of Web-based communities and networking. Hershey, PA: IGI Publishing.


As I indicated, we have been involved in several different wikibook projects. Each time is a new experience with its own challenges. There is a lot of work involved in coordinating Wikibooks across multiple sites and geographic regions. Part of the reason is that universities in other parts of the world, such as in Asia, start and end their semesters later then in the United States. Also, they might not have quick or reliable access to the Internet. And access might be banned by the prevailing government forcing students such as those in China to rely on proxy servers. To make matters worse, limited English proficiency adds to the tension for students in countries like China, Korea, or Malaysia. At the same time, there can be cultural differences in expectations related to interacting and collaborating online.


Cultural and geographic issues aside, there are many other challenges Mimi and I encountered in creating wikibooks. For example, some students do not want to write a wikibook chapter that someone else could edit or significantly change. Others want to publish their ideas in traditional channels. In a wiki, there are no names listed for the authors. Students also prefer to work on their chapters alone and not collaboratively with those in other time zones or geographic regions. Without a doubt, collaboration brings with it much stress.


There is also the issue of training students how to post and update their work within a wiki. It is not always as easy as wiki developers would like us to believe. Then there is copyright. In contrast to cultural perceptions, the Wikibooks Website is very strict when it comes to copyright. It almost goes overboard in making sure every figure or chart inserted in the book has proper clearance. As proof, we even personally commissioned book covers for our last two wikibooks and these visuals were repeatedly were taken offline until we completed the proper paperwork for them. And we did this over and over and over. It took much effort to get them to realize that we owned the rights to them.


Suffice to say, wikibook projects are fun and interesting but never easy. Much structure has to be in place for their success. It is far easier to write a page or two to Wikipedia than to create an entire book. And the tools for book development simply are not yet part of the wiki environment. Perhaps in ten years they will be.


5)      Apparently, the vast majority of “wikibookians” are male. What accounts for this?


This is an intriguing question. In our first study of around 80 wikibookians, nearly all were male (97.5 percent). You can read more in the following open access article:


Sajjapanroj, S., Bonk, C. J., Lee, M, & Lin M.-F. (2008, Spring). A window on Wikibookians: Surveying their statuses, successes, satisfactions, and sociocultural experiences. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(1), 36-58. Available: and


In a recent follow-up of this study with over 160 Wikibookians, the percent of males dropped slightly to 89 percent. The high percentage of males does make some sense since wikis are a technology tool. The majority of the people in computer science are males. There is also a male dominance in Wikipedia. Now this may shift over time as wiki-related tools become more widely accepted, familiar, and easy to use. Here is the follow-up study which can be downloaded from our research site in Wikispaces (see


Lin, M.-F., Sajjapanroj, S., Bonk, C. J. (2009, June). Wikibooks and Wikibookians: Loosely-Coupled Community or the Future of the Textbook Industry?, Ed Media 2009—World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, and Telecommunications, Honolulu, Hawaii.


6)      Where are these people employed, and how well educated are they?


In our original study, nearly 30 percent were employed in higher education and another 27 percent were in business settings. Interestingly, around half had not completed a four year college degree and one in ten did not even have a high school degree. Some members of our research team, especially me, had expected that those developing wikibooks would be college professors and accomplished writers. That simply was not the case. However, in our follow-up two years later, around 63 percent had a four year degree or higher. More impressively, around one in six had a doctoral degree and another one in five had earned a master’s. In our first study, nearly 60 percent were under age 26. In the follow-up, this dropped to 43 percent. And among older adults, the percent of increased as well from 5 percent over age 50 to 13 percent. Perhaps wikis and wikibooks are becoming more mainstream and not just the province of the young.


7)      Are these wikibooks already completed or a “work in progress”?


This is also a question wherein we have had interesting results. Most wikibooks are not complete. Many Wikibookians struggle to get support to create chapters and finish their book projects. Most remain optimistic despite their modest success. When we commenced our research on wikibooks back in 2006, there were around 1,000 books started and perhaps just 70 completed or near completion. Even today most wikibooks remain works in progress. However, if you browse the bookshelves at the Wikibooks Website, you will find hundreds of fairly complete books. There is a lot of useful knowledge and ideas in there!


Keep in mind that a wikibook is different than a traditional book since you can continue to make changes to it. People from around the world can visit and update a book with new knowledge or something that only that person knows about. So notions of completion may be evolving. A wikibook, then, may be the first type of knowledge medium in which each succeeding generation can add to or enhance. It is a tool to support the ever expanding knowledge of humankind.


8)      What basically did your research find?


As we stated earlier, Wikibooks are not easy to generate. And there is limited collaboration and support in wikibook development. Wikibooks are not rich environments for apprenticeship or social networking. Class wikibook projects are even more difficult; especially if they are optional. We discovered a plethora of technology, instruction, collaboration, and community building issues. In addressing some of these head on, we recommend you make class involvement in a wikibook required and provide sufficient scaffolding and support. Despite the potential problems, most Wikibookians find satisfaction in building books for the world community.


9)    If I have a bunch of my interviews, should I put them all into a wiki book? Who would want to read my interviews from several years ago?


Sounds like an interesting project ahead of you Michael. You would have to determine your initial audience. But once you post your work, it might transform into myriad audiences that you never expected. The best advice I have is simply to try it out. Post your work online as a book or compendium of interviews and see what happens. If the content is interesting and titled properly, the readers will come. With the wealth of interviews you have to pick from, an engaging title and preface will be crucial.


Now if you are asking about what format to use, that is another question. Try Wikispaces or Wikibooks. Or perhaps you might just post them to a book homepage that you create. You can make a PDF file and lock down the content or you can post to a wiki that others can change. Fortunately, with most wiki tools, you can decide if you want the content you post to be changeable or not.


10)  What have I neglected to ask?


You did not ask if I recommend others try out the Wikibooks Website. My team and I encourage pedagogical experimentation and risk taking. There is much to be gained from that. Students can be empowered to generate knowledge and ideas rather than just read books of others or get lectured to. And they can begin to appreciate and value ideas and cultures different from their own. However, be sure to plan out your project thoroughly before commencing.


You also did not ask for the URLs of our wikibook projects. They are listed below. The first two are in the Wikibooks Website from the Wikimedia Foundation. The third one uses Wikispaces and is more focused on students critiquing existing wikibooks.


1.      The Practice of Learning Theories (The POLT) (wikibook on learning theories):


2.      The Web 2.0 and Emerging Technologies (The WELT) (wikibook on the Web 2.0):


3.      Wikibook Online Work (WOW) (student critiques of a wikibook on learning theories as well as development of their own wikibook):


.Enjoy the wonderful world of wikis and wikibooks!


July 14th, 2009

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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