History as Open Source


Wikipedia and Information

The validity of sites such as the ever-popular Wikipedia has been questioned since their inception. Because it is open source, anyone can edit the articles--which means anyone could provide false information to unknowing visitors. Roy Rosenzweig’s article Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past compares the well-known and highly-visited site Wikipedia to such sources as Encarta and Britannica, as well as other historical publications. The free and open-source encyclopedia is besting Britannica without cost, and without recognition of contributors.

Some critics denounce Wikipedia as being “‘a flawed and irresponsible research tool’ where ‘volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects’ abound” [1]. The question of the articles’ validity comes into play often, as people find errors in various pages—just as they do in other encyclopedias. Wikipedia claims, on their website, to be nothing more than a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” [2]. As Rosenzweig writes: “To state the obvious: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and encyclopedias have intrinsic limits” [3]. Besides, as far as academic papers go, citing only an encyclopedia is a bad way to go anyway. The helpful thing about Wikipedia is its references: the citations provide more information, possibly from a source considered more accurate and respectable, though as the article points out, many historical sources contain mistakes.

Open Source Textbooks?

The claim that “history is a deeply individualistic craft” [4] seems to me a stale and old idea. History itself is a collaboration, and it makes sense that historians might work together and use each other’s works to improve their own. History would be nothing without the primary sources available today. Additionally, the textbooks found in classrooms today are old, worn-down, and expensive. So much so that in California a movement towards open-source textbooks has already begun.


The California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) is making the cost of K-12 textbooks in CA --currently at $400 million per year--go down, and making learning more updated and helpful. "COSTP benefits will be:

  • the complete elimination of the current $400M+ line item for California's K-12 textbooks
  • a significant increase in the range of content afforded to California's K-12 textbooks
  • a permanent end to California's textbook shortages
  • creation of fully portable content holdings database that scales with classroom technologies as they are introduced" [5]

COSTP claims, however, not to replace traditional print textbooks, but to make them more affordable. It plans to eliminate completely the cost of K-12 books in California [6].

Where's the Motivation?

In Grace Rubenstein's article Toss the Traditional Textbook, she claims that "classroom teaching shouldn't be as static as the textbooks on which it's based" [7]--a very good point indeed. Instead of sticking with that, a superintendent in El Paso, TX is going along with the open source movement and applying it to education, similar to COSTP's goals. Dr. Lorenzo Garcia wants the teachers in his district to maybe "even write their own textbooks. They'll do it cheaply, collaboratively, and efficiently -- through open source technology" [8]. Open education projects are cheap, flexible, easy to maintain, and the authors themselves can have a big impact, as Richard Baraniuk claims. Baraniuk is the founder of "the open source content library called Connexions" [9]. Educators who contribute to Connexions can write single lessons at a time, making material easier to access and sift through for educators, and possibly students as well. So where's the risk? The same risk that makes Wikipedia critics cringe: open source allows anyone to post, possibly resulting in faulty educational experiences. "The key is to attract enough teachers to the site that the reasoned many can police the activities of the errant few" [10]. So where's the motivation? Not money, but personal credit: unlike Wikipedia, Connexions identifies the contributing authors.

Open source for education and learning is already becoming a reality; it's a great cheap, collaborative, constantly-updated education movement.


[1] Rosenzweig, Roy. "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past." Center for History and New Media: George Mason University, 2008. CHNM. http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42
[2] Wikipedia: Main Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
[3] Rosenzweig.
[4] Rosenzweig.
[5] "Welcome to California Open Source Textbook Project". COSTP, 2002. http://www.opensourcetext.org/index.htm
[6] COSTP.
[7] Rubenstein, Grace. "Toss the Traditional Textbook." Edutopia, October 2006. http://www.edutopia.org/toss-traditional-textbook
[8] Rubenstein.
[9] Rubenstein.
[10] Rubenstein.

Good job Sarah,

Extremely detailed and well orgainized...