For the last couple of years I have been slowly building a wiki for this linear algebra course. By design, the wiki looks very much like Wikipedia; the usual navigation, search and toolbox frames are in the same place. It "works" the same way. Along the way I have observed several assets and liabilities to this approach.
Here are some assets:
- Cooperation is easy. This is the most obvious one, but one which I
haven't really taken advantage of. In fact, since I am the only author,
this is really an anti-wiki (that will change).
- All browsers include the ability to read wikis, so no special software
is needed (however, see below). Any operating system with any modern
browser will almost always do the right thing.
- No special student instruction is necessary. You don't have to tell
them to click on links; they do it automatically. You don't have to tell
them how to print pages; they've been doing it for years.
- MathJax allows mathematical expressions to be typeset (beautifully)
using LaTeX. This includes the extensions from the amsmath package.
This means that mathematical symbols are not bitmapped but, rather,
have quality matching that of the browser text. It also means that any
familiarity with LaTeX can be used immediately with the wiki, and a
consistency of mathematical presentation is possible.
- The MediaWiki software allows for macros, so that, at least
in principle, markup and presentation can be separated. It also
allows transclusion (this is where the contents of a defined link is
automatically included when the page is opened) so that created material
may be recombined in different ways.
- The language for MediaWiki, both for creating pages and for running
the wiki, is well documented.
- Tools are available when necessary for
- folding text (extra text that is opened by clicking on a
- automatically generated links (table of contents and such)
- Controling presentation with CSS is another layer of abstraction to
- The syntax for nonmathematical page markup is awkward.
- The default editing environment is pretty awful.
- Structures like tables, numbered and bulleted lists can be done in
various ways (html or mediawiki syntax). All of them are awkward.
- Using math within tables causes unexpected results.
- A wiki needs a GD (gentil dictateur où gentille dictatrice) to ensure
consistency and quality.
Incidently, feel free to look at any of the pages on the site and use anything you find useful. Just be warned that many pages are pretty stark and some links just dangle. You can also note that it is possible to click on a 2d or 3d graphic and a hidden PostScript version will pop up showing full detail (the initial graphic is bit mapped). With a newer version of the Adobe Reader, it is possible (in theory, at least) to grab a 3d image and rotate it, scale it and carry out other transformations. If you want to give it a try, look at the figure in
Matt Boelkins has commented in this blog that writing a textbook requires writing "2 pages a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year." That's quite a burden. So here is the question: can this burden be shared by using a wiki? Is this any more feasible for a cooperative approach to the writing of open texts than any other software? Comments are welcome.
Department of Mathematics
University of Manitoba