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Technology

Wiki-style e-textbooks for schools let teachers tailor lessons to kids

Unhappy with the number of textbook pages his students needed to skip over, a biology teacher teamed with a media expert to create a free, online e-textbook for seventh and eighth graders.

The heart of the "Schulbuch-O-Mat" beats in Berlin, but its brain is spread across Germany. The project aims to create the country's first free and accessible school electronic textbook. Teachers from all over Germany can contribute to the text, which is collected by Hans Wedenig.

"Everyone can participate," says the 53-year-old Wedenig, who came up with the idea for an online textbook with Heiko Przyhodnik, a biology teacher.

"We were annoyed that pages and pages of our kids' expensive school textbooks went unused," Przyhodnik says.

Przyhodnik says printed textbooks often fail to meet his teaching needs. "I don't need a chapter with pond experiments when there is no water near the school."

Heiko Przyhodnik (left) and Hans Wedenig Copyright: Tim Wiese

Heiko Przyhodnik (left) and Hans Wedenig developed the Schulbuch-O-Mat

Instead, the 42-year-old Przyhodnik and his co-workers have found themselves turning to the Internet for more material to use in their classes - as do 75 percent of teachers, according to a study by the Allensbach polling agency. Przyhodnik says a common, online platform will help teachers avoid having to search individually for extra material.

An open system

The Schulbuch-O-Mat started as a pilot project by producing a biology textbook for seventh and eighth graders in Berlin.

As each of Germany's 16 states oversees children's education at a local level, books for other states are also planned.

The book is run in a wiki format, similar to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. The book's content is all online and anyone can use and edit it.

"Authors post their articles for free for anyone to use so there are no copyright issues," Wedenig says.

Work is continually being done on the e-book to keep it up to date. When errors are noticed, anyone reading is welcome to propose improvements and at the end Przyhodnik makes the final decision and checks articles before they go online. The biology textbook can be read online or downloaded - so far the e-textbook has been downloaded over 3,200 times.

Müller works at a computer with Przyhodnik and Wedenig Copyright: Tim Wiese

Müller is one of the many volunteers who has contributed to the project

The system fascinates Kerstin Müller, who is currently studying media information technology. She says she found out about the project online and decided to spend a term studying it. She also programmed an interactive quiz that was added to chapters on human cells.

"What appeals to me is that, as with Wikipedia, you're a part of the whole thing," says Müller.

International forerunners

The Schulbuch-O-Mat is maintained online thanks to donations via the crowdfunding portal startnext.de.

"Other countries have moved much further, with corporate sponsors financing similar projects," says Przyhodnik.

CK 12 is one of the learning platforms and is run by Stanford University. It offers teachers lesson material as well as the option of putting together their individual tailored books which can be made available to others.

Interdisciplinary learning

Hans Wedenig at a compüuter working on the Schulbuch-O-Mat. Copyright: Tim Wiese

Wedenig says he's happy everytime a new report comes for the e-textbook

Organizers at the Schulbuch-O-Mat say they hope to integrate other features offered by CK 12, such as being able to connect material across different subjects. It would allow the biology e-textbook's chapter on photosynthesis to match up with a section in a chemistry e-textbook chapter explaining the chemical changes taking place in plants.

But to be able to do that, Wedenig says, it will take much more work.

"A lot of people are very excited," he says, "but we could use more authors."

The Schulbuch-O-Mat initiators are hoping a partnership with the Berlin-Brandenburg broadcasting corporation will see students and their teachers producing videos and short texts for the Schulbuch-O-Mat.

"Who could do a better job of creating reports for our target audience than the people who will be learning from the book," says Wedenig.

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