Christmas Comes Early

I woke this morning (Solstice, December 21st 2012) to find in my twitter feed news that has stepped up and freed the entire back-catalogue of FlatWorld Knowledge textbooks in one fell swoop. This is tremendous news, and Saylor, who are in my opinion consistently top of the class when it comes to Open Textbooks, have once again shown tremendous leadership. So Bravo.

I’m only writing this post for two reasons – first so that I can link to it from my earlier call to preserve this tiny piece of the commons and let anyone know who stumbles across it that the deed is done.

But secondly, to give all of the folks who stepped up to my call my sincere thanks and a huge pat on the back. I only turned to this crowdsourcing approach after my old employer decided it was not willing to take the risk and do this themselves (and I understand why given their need to work with highly risk-adverse government funders).

While we didn’t accomplish the entire goal ourselves, we should still feel proud of trying. The Commons is communal; while it is fantastic that we have larger institutional players and NGOs like Saylor (and CC and EFF and FSF and…) that work tirelessly to build and preserve it, we also need to all act individually to do the same, whether it be as Clint Lalonde and Chris Lott  have written recently in donating to groups like these, or taking part in actions like this.

So thanks. Especially because at a time for me when I needed to know my network was there, you showed up. Thanks.

All I want for Christmas…

UPDATE – on December 21st, 2012 it was announced that had preserved all of these texts. Read more here.


…is for you to buy a single Flatworld Knowledge textbook, before December 31. And then share it with the rest of the world.

About a month ago news made the rounds that as of January 1st 2013, Flatworld Knowlege had decided to remove free access from their “open” textbooks. This was accompanied by much gnashing of teeth and raising of fists at how FWK had played fast and loose with either the terms “open” or “free” in the past. All of which I agree with.

But then…nothing. As if we were helpless in the face of someone diminishing the Commons. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening. All of FWK’s books are currently published on their site under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike license. This means that, even with the restrictions, both legal and technical, that they imposed, these books were in the Creative Commons. But because of the technical restrictions FWK placed on the books (they are not at public URLs but behind logins; the content is not easily copyable unless you pay for it) after the gate comes down on December 31 and the licenses removed (because surely they will) unless copies of them are made outside of these walls, they will have effectively been removed from the Commons.

My own efforts to date have been to port web-native versions of 4 books onto the Pressbooks platform (to be clear, this was done ENTIRELY outside of my previous role at BCcampus and on my own pressbooks sites.) They have not gone live yet because one of the things needed for pressbooks to really cook as an open textbook platform is custom book styles and a CSS-driven print engine, which will allow these ported books to come really close to their original.The nice thing about this is that I did this for free (with the exception of the time I volunteered.) I used the free web versions and some handy harvesting tricks (which I’m happy to share) to get the web content off their servers and onto another.

But sadly, time is running out. There are only 17 days before this content becomes lost to the Commons. Thus I urge you to purchase one copy of any of the textbooks on their server and then share it. Sadly, you’ll need to buy the $34.95 version to get the downloadable PDF. The cheaper version is still just the web version which would still need to be harvested.

Buy the one you think is the best or will serve students the most. Or coordinate with others – I have created a sheet of all the FWK textbooks and their status in being placed back in the commons. If you do buy a copy, place a note here (anonymously if you like) that you have. Ideally between all of us, we can cover as much of the catalogue as possible. Also note I am perfectly happy to act as the host for your copy if that is something you feel uncomfortable doing. Email/tweet/comment to me if you want to take up this option.


But why you ask? Don’t the licenses themselves mean that schools who charge tuition will not be able to have their students use this free copies?

Firstly, following David Wiley’s argument, I too feel this is non-sense. Paying tuition is NOT the same as charging for a book, and so it is entirely possible that these can still be used at NO cost by students in formal courses.In addition, unless we actually have opportunities to challenge that FUD, we won’t know if it’s true or not, and keeping these books in the Commons preserves this opportunity.

But on top of that, the whole point (in my eyes) of “open education” is that it is not just about formal learning or formal learners – there is a world of people without access to formal learning opportunities who can still benefit from the Commons.

The other argument I know is “yeah, but if we just download PDFs, all we’re doing is adding static content to the Commons – how un-exciting/un-pedagogically sound is that?” To which I’d say three things

  • PDFs don’t always have to stay PDFs – as I plan to write on in an upcoming piece, being able to decompose or shift previously locked media formats is one of the new digital literacies I think we can learn from the Pirates (arrr!)
  • systems like Evident Point’s ActiveTextbook allow students and instructors to upload an existing PDF and then annotate, discuss and customize it in useful ways, meaning maybe PDFs aren’t the dead end they’ve always seemed like
  • we do the best with what we have – do you have a better idea?

This is not about punishing FlatWorld Knowledge. As cheesy as I think there decision is, it’s their right to make it. All I am trying to do is exercise the rights we currently have to preserve material already in the commons.

So what I’m asking for Christmas is for people in my network and those who care preserving the commons is to take this small step to do so.


Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 4 – The Rest

Well, we are nearing the end of this series on Open Textbooks, just one or two posts to go. Before we leave off this section on Authoring Tools, though, I wanted to provide some annotated links to a host of others I have discovered in my travels in case they were of use to someone. Some of these exemplify the model of web-based, multi-format output open tools that I have focused on, and could easily themselves been written up in more detail had I the time, while others are stand-alone tools that, while they have their uses, fall short of my own vision for an authoring platform that breeds openness, sharing and remixes.

Web-based platforms


Had I found Pandamian before today, I would have included it in the writeup on WordPress and Pressbooks as open textbook authoring tools. While I don’t know that it is in fact wordpress-based, functionally it is almost identical to pressbooks. While I couldn’t find a simple way to reorganize chapters, it allows for web-based authoring of books that are exportable with a single click in all of PDF, .epub, and .mobi. The web-based version allows for commenting just like Pressbooks. Also like Pressbooks, it is currently only available as a service (though my hope is that Pressbooks, having been built on wordpress, offers more exit strategies and potentially self-hosting in the future.)


Also likely should have been mentioned in the WordPress write-up is Annotum, an open source, wordpress-based solution for scholarly publication. It is focused on scholarly writing specifically, but it is able to output to multiple formats and so is deserving of note here.


Connexion is a bit of an odd duck in my opinion, yet definitely deserves a nod as it has been going for many years now, and is one of the few “repositories” to have continued growing and improving over time. There are a number of Open Textbooks that have already been built in Connexions, including those that have been included by the Community College Open Textbook Collaborative (e.g. Finite Applied Mathematics.) One of the big advantages is that it is built from the ground up around structured, well-marked up text. Not only does this allow for export to different formats, it allows for an ecosystem of reuse within the system. Like much OER, it is not clear the extent to which people actually make use of the ability to remix and recombine existing content into new stuff, even when the system allows for it to be done quite easily, but there does seem to be some evidence of it in Connexions.

Rice University, the home of Connexions, also just announced it was entering into the Open Textbook playing field in an even bigger way with its OpenStax project (great name!), which aims at first to deliver “publisher quality” open textbooks for the 5 highest enrollment courses in the state.

iPad- or eBook-only tools

I hopefully don’t need to explain again my thoughts on targetting the iPad on its own as a platform for open textbooks, or for that matter looking only to eBooks. Sheer madness, regardless of how nice the results look. Still, there are those who will be tempted. For them, I simply offer links to the following three authoring tools. And my best wishes.

  • Demibooks Composer –
  • Redjumper Book Creator –
  • Genwi –

I should add thanks to the New Kind of Book site for its two bookmaking roundups for some invaluable references that turned up a couple of these that were new to me.

Desktop Tools, Readers, Clippers, Transformers and Other Gadgets

Very briefly I’ll mention a number of other tools that are handy for the fledgling open textbook author to know about

  • sigil – an open source, cross-platform, desktop, WYSIWYG authoring tool for ePubs. Very handy to have to do clean up on some of the results from these other automated approaches I have mentioned. I don’t know that I would advocate authoring solely in sigil, but it is very handy to have.
  • e-cub – another free desktop authoring tool for ePubs. Not as powerful as sigil but it’s my go to when using other tools has failed – it seems to open anything I throw at it and is otherwise dependable.
  • calibre – in the earlier days, this was one of the only free desktop eBook tools around. It’s still worth installing, but I regularly find it borking on things and usually only turn to it when nothing else has worked.
  • Open Office eBook extension – In a pinch, authors could compose work in Open Office, the open source word processor, and export both as HTML/Mediawiki, ePub and print to PDF. It’s not ideal, but for a fast, cheap and easy way to get going, it’s worth knowing about.
  • GrabMyBooks epub creator browser extension – I like the idea of this partly because I am always advocating that people look at incorporating tools that fit into their existing workflow rather than tools that bolt on in addition to what they already do. That’s the main idea behind the Open Educator as DJ and Augmenting OER with Client-side Tools. This plugin lets you grab content as you surf the web and add it to a collection that can then be published as an ePub.
  • ePub reader browser add-on – I love this add-on for Firefox because when I click on ePub links, this renders them right in my browser. Meaning I don’t need to use a special reader if I don’t want to, but also I can check to see if the book is really something I want to read before downloading it, synching it to my eReader, etc.

Additional Reading

Finally, a couple of recent reports and books that you may find useful in thinking about both book authoring but also the future of what we call “books.” The first is the just released JISC Digital Monograph Technical Landscape study which ultimately seems a much more thorough look at many of the issues I have tried to cover over the last 5 posts. If you are really interested in the topic of formats and tools, then you should spend the time to read it. The other is a free early edition (the first three chapters) of an in process book called Breaking the Page by Peter Meyers, who also maintains the above-mentioned “New Kind of Book” site. If the first three chapters are any indication, the finished book will be worth the wait, as Peter speculates on ways in which technology can improve and change the way we interact with books. The first three chapters deal with Browsing (think new forms of Table of Contents), Searching (think new forms of Indexes) and Navigating (what happens when linear isn’t the only dimension you can arrange things in). It is given me all sorts of ideas on how ebooks will transform in ways that still respect all of the useful things real physical books allow us to do.

Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 3 – Book Sprints

In my first two write-ups, I framed the pieces around the tools, WordPress and Mediawiki specifically. Hopefully it was clear though that part of the impact of these tools in creating open textbooks is not simply about the products they can produce, but that they can also change the entire process of book authoring and reading by introducing the network and its many affordances.

This time, I want to specifically frame the discussion around a new method of authoring, called “book sprints,” that have arisen both because of technology that enables them but even more so out of new models of collaboration pioneered in hacker and open source communities. A book sprint “brings together a group to produce a book in 3-5 days. There is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to published book. The books produced are high quality content and are made available immediately at the end of the sprint via print-on-demand services and e-book formats.” The idea of a “sprint” originates in the coding world, where a group of developers work in a concerted way over a short, intense period to produce some new code. Originally they were face-to-face events, often held in conjunction with a conference or some other gathering, but in the last few years I have seen them sprout up as online events, both tightly and loosely coordinated. Similarly, while Book sprints began as face to face efforts, they too are starting to migrate into online-only events.

Why a Sprint?

I think one of the reasons I personally love the idea of a Book Sprint is that I learn in a pretty classical “extrovert” fashion – I love to think on my feet and brainstorm out loud with people (ironic for someone who works on his own at home, I know, but then just ask people who meet up with me at conferences!) I also love the fact that, while producing a tangible result, a book, is clearly a main focus, it is not the only value that comes out of the process – seen as having some similarities with “unconferences,” book sprints can be understood as also serving an educational purpose themselves, as well as helping to catalyze a community.

But as I mentioned in my opening post, I think another positive aspect of the Book Sprint is that it embodies the principle of “good enough” – rather than start with a preconceived notion of only a very specific result being of value, it instead works on the same sort of principles of “open space” or unconferences of working with what you’ve got and getting as far as you can in the time you’ve got, knowing that getting something going is more important, in an iterative scenario, than not starting at all because all the ducks haven’t been lined up in a row ahead of time. Sharing, already, not just planning to share. This is especially the case for areas in which a good alternative does not yet exist, or areas in which, by definition, knowledge changes at an incredibly fast pace. And to the extent to which we now understand that digital, open and networked “textbooks” don’t have to be as fixed as in the past, an approach which gives people something to actually iterate on, along with both the rights and ability to do so, seems exactly right.

Ways to do them Online

There are at least 2 main components you’d need to facilitate a book sprint online. The first would be some sort of synchronous conferencing space. Something like elluminate or Big Blue Button for instance. You’d use this for some initial discussion and brainstorming, possibly the session in which you agree on what the general content chunks are and who wants to work on what. An additional synchronous conferencing piece is also useful to facilitate the smaller working groups that split off from the big group – one might consider either the breakout capabilities of the tools I mentioned above, or even tools like Skype or Google Hangout would work.

Alongside that, the working groups need a tool to support collaborative writing. Perhaps Google Docs, perhaps etherpad. Both can output in pretty standard formats. A new entrant that I haven’t tried out but can’t wait to install and kick the tires is – it feels very much like etherpad, but has the added bonus of supporting natively a bunch of useful formats like PDF, ePub and even LaTeX, and the resulting documents look good on their own too.

And I would be absolutely remiss if I did not mention booki. Like both etherpad, and, Booki is free software that is also available as a service, but in this case very specifical developed to facilitate collaborative book authoring. If you think collaborative synchronous book authoring is not possible, just check out the list of books produced via booki (as well, have a look at FLOSSManuals, many of which, FWIK, were produced using booki.)

Now if you think getting people to collaborate on a wiki is hard or confusing, this might not be for you. It does take some patience and tolerance for ambiguity. But it is do-able. One of the first groups I witnessed that inspired me to think this was viable was the P2PU planning group. They have devised a method of collaboration during calls that combines multi-party skype with etherpad for collaborative note taking. I got to experience this in the lead up calls to Mozilla’s Drumbeat conference in 2010, which involved some of the same folks, and it was great to see it in action. It’s definitely not just technology that makes this work; good facilitators, pre-existing group relationships and history all play a part in making this kind of collaboration work. But it is not only viable, it constantly amazes what a smart group of willing collaborators can produce in very little time for very little money.

Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 2 – WordPress and Pressbooks

I moved this blog on to the wordpress platform in 2007 (I think.) I built a open learning search portal on wordpress in 2009. I have participated and helped organize a bunch of different “wordpress in education” events here in BC, and maintain wordpress installations for both BCcampus and etug. So I probably don’t need to tell you, I <3 wordpress.

A few years back, the folks at the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University spearheaded a very cool project to build a new digital humanities tool in one week. The result was the Anthologize plugin for WordPress which allows you to collect together a set of blog posts and publish them in a variety of web, print and eReader friendly formats.

Not long after (maybe even before) I became aware of both Comment Press and its successor While neither of these are in and of themselves publishing or packaging tools, in greatly expanding the ways in which readers and editors could comment on a text at the paragraph level, they added to an emerging vision of WordPress as a web platform for authoring multi-format books in a dynamic, networked way.

So when I began last year thinking about platforms that met all my goals for an open textbook platform, I pretty much knew I had these in my back pocket and that with not too much finesse or effort they could serve quite well.

And I still think that. But before we really got underway with our Open Textbook pilot, I kept scanning the horizon to see what other options might have come up since I found these. And boy am I glad I did, because I stumbled on Pressbooks.


Pressbooks is the work of Hugh McGuire, who also previously founded LibriVox, the biggest site in the world for audio versions of public domain works. Pressbooks is built on top of WordPress, and offers the same simplicity for authoring books that those of us who blog have come to know and love. Actually, it offers a BETTER system – the Pressbooks folks have customized the backend dashboard and interface of wordpress to suit it even better to authoring books specifically (see figure 1.) At first I had thought they had simply taken Anthologize and further customized it, but I recently learned that this was not the case. In addition, they have created a couple of custom post types to accomodate all of the additional book metadata fields that have accrued over the fears (see figure 2.)

Output is where Pressbooks really shines. To test it out I created my own book using the same “Intro to PowerPoint” content I tried porting to mediawiki. Again, there was no simple IMS CP to Blog import functionality, but given the fairly small amount of content, it didn’t take much more than an hour to setup the basic pages and copy the content over.

Actually, this point deserves some attention, because even more so than Mediawiki, Pressbooks didn’t like crufty HTML. And when your legacy content is coming via Word-to-HTML via Desire2Learn output, crufty is the order of the day!

But after a few go rounds to clean it up (and no small effort on Hugh’s part – thanks!!) I had a web-based version of the text, as well as both an ePub and printable PDF. Now as in the case of the mediawiki experiment, these results were produced automagically but similarly could be manually massaged after the fact. But more than this, Pressbooks also supports exports, a native format of the industry standard Adobe InDesign application, meaning that you can deliver the content of your book, properly marked up, to a professional designer and save them a ton of hassle. Similarly pressbooks supports uploading custom CSS to style ePubs, which means you can style these until your heart’s content (see figure 3 for all export formats)

Tale of the Tape

So how does this approach fare? Let’s run it through the criteria I outlined in last post and see:

  • collaborative authoring – whether via multiple authors on a single chapter, or by divvying up the book, this is no problem
  • can be done “out in the open” – absolutely, though one can make it private if one chooses to
  • results in all of a web, print and eBook version – definitely
  • is easy for authors and readers alike to use – I’m maybe biased, but I thought it was dead simple
  • is free/cheap and open/extensible (and produces open standards-based content) – yep, yep and yep (but let’s revisit below)
  • limits the choices upstream of what authors and reusers want to do with the book as little as possible – I’d say the answer was absolutely yes – this does not seem to be a “lock in” game at all.

When I have shown this to a few trusted colleagues, one of the first questions they’ve asked has been “have the components that customize wordpress to make it pressbooks themselves been open sourced?” It’s a fair question and an obvious one in the circles I run in. The answer currently is no. This is being offered as a service, albeit currently a free one. This is slightly troubling, but something that I hope to discuss further with Hugh and team to see what the way forward looks like. That said, given the wide variety of export formats, and my affinity for letting others man the widgets if I can, I absolutely hope and expect there is a way to use this as a service and to be diligent about exit strategies, flexibility and autonomy.

There is ultimately no one solution that will work for everyone and every scenario when it comes to open textbooks. As I try to describe in my talk February 7th (slides here or else feel free to join us online at 1:30pm PDT), it is a question of balancing affordances with what your users need, what you can do, and what you’d love to enable. But for now, Pressbooks has risen VERY quickly to the top of my list of approaches that I think do a good job of balancing all of these and providing a self-service, inexpensive platform to move forward with open textbooks. – SWL

Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 1 – Mediawiki

So my last post should have made it clear that what I am ultimately hoping to promote/support for BC is an authoring and publishing system for open textbooks that:

  • can enable collaborative authoring if desired
  • can be done “out in the open” to enable as much as possible the conditions for serendipity to emerge, so that content can spread viral-ly, new co-authors and unintended readers happily stumble upon it
  • results in all of a web, print and eBook version (maybe more!) being produced as automagically as possible – i.e making the material as accessible as possible to as many learners as possible
  • is easy for authors and readers alike to use
  • is free/cheap and open/extensible (and produces open standards-based content)
  • limits the choices upstream of what authors and reusers want to do with the book as little as possible
  • gets me dates (ok, this last one was just a test to see how closely you were reading)

That’s not asking much, is it?

Mediawiki and Wikieducator

Luckily, there are some real pioneers in our field who have blazed trails in this area that those of us coming along later can follow. One of those groups of pioneers is made up of the folks at the Mediawiki foundation and Wikieducator (and I’d be remiss not to mention the Commonwealth of Learning and Wayne Mackintosh in particular for funding a lot of this work.) They have created extensions to Mediawiki, the open source wiki software that famously powers Wikipedia, that allow one to collect pages together and publish them as a printable PDF book. In addition, they worked with a print-on-demand outfit called PediaPress to enable seamless printing of the results.

To see/use this in action you need only to visit the Wikieducator site. On the left-hand nav there’s a link to Add a wiki page to a book. That’s right – books aren’t predetermined but can be made on the fly to include whatever pages you like. That’s not to say the instructor can’t pre-assemble an official “text,” but whether it be a student personalizing it or another instructor wanting to adopt it, the book can contain whatever contents you choose.

But you needn’t try it only on wikieducator; the Collections extension is freely downloadable and installable by anyone wishing to run this in their own mediawiki. There is also a second, unrelated extension, ePubexport, available to convert a set of pages into an ePub.

Now before we get to far, let me make it clear, I am not suggesting you have to do this on your own or that you shouldn’t use wikieducator. Indeed, that should probably be your FIRST question to yourself if this approach seems appealing – why would I not use wikieducator? Not only is it likely to be better supported than what you will do on your own, there are already scores of folks involved, some of whom may prove to be future collaborators. In addition, they have done lots of work creating templates and styles that come in very handy. So many of us talk about the importance of communities but then forget we don’t always have to create them ourselves; often it’s a more a question of finding those that exist and joining in.

Trying it out locally

However, I did install Mediawiki and these extensions for our open textbook pilot, in part because I wanted to learn for myself how they worked and also see what parts could be customized or improved upon. As a test, one of my colleagues gave me access to a Desire2Learn-based course from the Applied Business Technology. I exported the course to get access to the source files. A few things to note here:

  • hey D2L – your exports still kinda SUCK! I don’t know who thought it would be cute to transform file paths into file _names_ but it’s just a PITA.
  • there’s no simple way I’ve ever found of getting from an IMS Content Package to a wiki (or much else for that matter, and thank goodness for that – it would mean someone outside of higher education was actually taking IMS specs seriously, pshaw!) There is however some html import tools for mediawiki that are useful. There are also web-based HTML to mediawiki conversion tools to that can be helpful too.
  • that said, the truth is that all of the approaches that let you output to multiple formats depend to a lesser or greater extent on clean markup. So while you can get existing stuff in, its almost always better, if you have the choice, to simply author in those environments from the get go.

Here are some of the results of this initial test (trust me, the irony of the subject matter is not lost on me) – the site itself, the generated printable PDF and the ePub.

Now before you criticize, these were done with no additional attention paid to page templates, transformations or additional CSS. I also did some initial tests and it does look like the resulting PDF is editable after the fact with Adobe Acrobat X Pro, meaning there is room for manual improvements to the file in addition to refinements to the export process. And I was able to open and improve upon other automatically generated ePub’s with the Sigil WYSIWYG ePub editor, and in very short order was able to remove some of the cruft and other formatting and turn it into something reasonably usable.

So how does this approach fare? Let’s run it through the above criteria I described and see:

  • collaborative authoring – in spades!
  • can be done “out in the open” – the very definition of it
  • results in all of a web, print and eBook version – yep
  • is easy for authors and readers alike to use – let’s come back to this
  • is free/cheap and open/extensible (and produces open standards-based content) – yep, yep and yep
  • limits the choices upstream of what authors and reusers want to do with the book as little as possible – given XML exports and a multitude of wiki conversion tools, I’d say the answer was yes.
  • gets me dates – still left to be seen

So this approach seems to hit on most fronts. The big question is – is it easy to do and will instructors and others supporting them be able to bridge the gap between there current workflow and approaches and this new one?

Well many folks tell me this is just too much to expect, editing mediawiki seems just short of rocket science. And I have to concede, there is always room for improvements – I am holding out great hope that the still experimental Mediawiki WYSIWYG editor will be a big step forward, but even turning on the bundled (but not activated by default) WikEd editor is a major step forward. Even something like the Word2Mediawiki extension can serve as a useful bridging strategy (Open Office also exports natively to Mediawiki.) And implementing page templates (and wiki gardeners – a potential useful role for students too) can also make things much easier. So yes, there’s room for improvements, but is mediawiki simply just too difficult in the end regardless of what we do to improve it? If so, someone should tell the faculty and students at UBC to stop doing the impossible – their wiki continues to astound.

So I’m left thinking there is some real potential here that I want to pursue. I know there is technical work still to do. The bigger challenge, one that I’m not sure is surmountable, is the cultural chasm between the cult of authority in higher ed and the messy give and take that is a vibrant, collaborative wiki. It may well be that this is an approach that anticipates future potential benefits too highly over current realities of practice. That’s part of the reason we’re doing a number of pilots, to figure this out, and this is but one of a number of approaches being investigated. More on that in the next post. – SWL

(Author’s Note: This post was partly written, online I might add, while sailing across the Salish Sea. I just had to mention this as the fact that I could do this continues to blow my mind.)

The Moving Target of Open “Textbooks”

As part of our efforts here in BC around Open Textbooks, I have asked those involved with the project to single out some of their favourite examples. You see, when we use the term “open textbooks” we all think we know what we mean by it, but like the blind men and the elephant, depending on your perspective, “open textbooks” can end up meaning many things, and so it felt like being able to point to specifics would be helpful.

For many, “open textbooks” seem to be primarily about cost savings, about saving money for both funders and learners, but not particularly about challenging the “form” of what we have known as a textbook. And I agree, affordability is a strong motivator to get into this space, and an obvious selling point for all the stakeholders (well, almost all – commercial publishers don’t seem exactly thrilled about it.)

But the need to save money is not the only force shaping the future of textbooks.

It is impossible to ignore the rise of eBooks, especially since Apple has decided to disrupt this market too.

Add to that all that we have learned over the years about the important affordances of the digital (copy-ability, fork-ability, remix-ability, interactivity and rich media) the network-enabled (discover-ability, collaboration, enabling serendipity, real time-ness) and the mobile (any time, any where).

Add to that questions about whether the model of learning implicit in “textbooks” has become outdated, alongside the explosion in the quantities of information we are experiencing, and it would seem that simply producing cheaper versions of what we currently have in printed textbooks is the very least we could aim for, as big an accomplishment as that would be in the short term.

So given all of that, what indeed should we be aiming for?

An All-eBook Future?

One approach (which with the advent of Apple’s new iBook authoring tool is sure to lure many folks) is to leap directly towards full-on electronic textbooks. Given the recent explosion in sales in both eReaders and eBooks, this looks to many like the future.

And undoubtedly, in part it is. While the sheer number of platforms and packaging formats may give you pause, eBooks are here for the foreseeable future, and offer many of the benefits of being digital and mobile. But not necessarily all of them, or at least the extent to which they enable these is very dependent on the way in which they are implemented. On their own, without some sort of network-based publishing system, eBooks don’t lend themselves that well to collaborative authoring. While plugins like Firefox’s ePub reader make some formats accessible to those without eReader devices, they don’t necessarily serve other populations (offline, disabled) well. They deny the importance of the resale market in textbooks (though this is perhaps not an issue for open textbooks.) While digital note taking and annotation is often trumpted as improved in eBooks, I’m not personally convinced that we’ve made the leap yet in terms of how people study with textbooks.

Are we ready for ALL eBooks all-the-time? Well no, I don’t think so. Will it take 25 more years for the printing press to finally disappear, or less. I don’t know, but my guess is it won’t be the case anytime soon, nor is it even totally desirable.

Wither the Web?

In some ways, eBooks seem actually an answer begged by the question of eBook-specific devices and the whole metaphor of “books as objects.”  People have been reading electronic materials even before the dawn of the web, and the rise of the multi-purpose tablet, led by the iPad and quickly followed by many Android-powered devices, seems to me to bode a short future for eReader-specific devices and the many of the formats they’ve spawned. And what of those eBook formats in general? Even those, when you dig in, most often look like just a packaging format for XHTML/XML content and little more. And with the increased rich media capabilities of modern browsers coupled with HTML5, one is left wondering if there is anything that specific to “eBooks.” Google seemed to question just that when it produced this “20 Things I Learned about the Web” book using only HTML5.

In many ways, the book/ebook/web distinction needs to be understood along the same lines as the App/Site distinction and the overall fight for generativity. (As an aside, if you haven’t read it already, please get yourself a copy of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It [free PDF copy here] to help undestand this term and how it underpins what so many of us are fighting for in the trenches of open source, net neutrality and open content.) On the one hand you have open standards that lead to an explosion of individual freedoms and creativity, and on the other, enclosure, false scarcity and gatekeepers in the guise of “user friendliness.” Of course it is not so simple as that, nor such a clearcut binary. It never is. But given where we’ve got to in the short 20 years of the web, we are foolish to simply abandon it in favour of teh shiny.

The Best of All Worlds?

But do print, the web and eBooks need to be mutually exclusive choices? Emphatically NO! We now have dozens of examples of content that gets authored online, in collaborative spaces, that is usable on the web but also capable of output both as printable books and downloadable eBooks. What has for so long been the promise of first SGML and later XML, to detach content from presentation and allow content to flow seamlessly into various forms, is finally moving out of the realm of the experts and into end-user oriented environments. I will discuss two such approaches in the posts to follow, but there are more showing up every week.

Now a criticism has been made that, when it comes to textbooks, the “user generated” versions are a big step back from the polished versions we’ve come to expect from publishers. To be fair, that article is a couple of years old now, and things move quickly in this space. But at the same time, it’s an important criticism to acknowledge. And for now I think it’s still largely true – the state of open textbooks that are not commercially produced (in saying this I am excepting FlatWorld Knowledge) are mostly not stunning to look at, they lack some of the polish their commercial alternatives have developed. And I think David Wiley is also correct when he argues that currently most open textbooks are only focusing on what’s traditional thought of as the “student edition” of a textbook, and that the supporting materials (problem solutions, lesson plans, teaching tips) are very important to encourage faculty adoption.

But… where have we heard this before? Isn’t it clear by now how much better Encyclopedia Britannica is than Wikipedia? How superior Microsoft apps are to open source versions? This is the perennial charge by incumbents in all sorts of industries towards peer production and openness. To which, a few responses:

  1. While at first it may be true, given enough people and an important enough goal, it becomes less and less so. cf. Ubuntu, Open Office, etc.
  2. This is less damaging a critique when the alternative being proposed is not intended as an exact duplication of what it is replacing. So – mediawiki-based textbooks now offer both ePub and PDF outputs as well as the site. But in addition to being collaboratively editable, the “textbook” begins to take on a different role when it is embedded in a collaborative environment that can be used for teaching. And extensions like UBC’s EmbedWiki mean that it even small chunks can flow and intermingle in a way that is synonymous with virality.
  3. But, and this is critical for me, as important as cost is as a motivator, we frame the discussion about openness and open textbooks as being primarily or solely about cost savings at our peril. Free beer is of little solace when it’s served to those who’ve lost the actual freedoms they’ve struggled to win. The co-evolution of “Good Enough” and open networked collaboration is not simply accidental – we seem slowly to be understanding that the WAY we do things, and the way we structure our relations with each other in producing things, is important, needs to be factored into the “value” of the things produced even if we can’t account for it. There will be an initial hit in terms of productivity, in terms of polish, as we transition, but unless we start to understand this we are all going to keep winning our race to the bottom.

The Process of Change & Innovation

Still, we all have to start somewhere. As described above, there are MANY factors potentially affecting the future of textbooks. One of the challenges we face in our institutions (themselves already by definition resistant to change) is balancing the need to respond to or take advantage of these varied factors with other real constraints. In my upcoming talk on open textbook authoring models and platforms, I try to depict the considerations an individual instructor might need to balance:

and offer some of the questions to ask oneself:

  • Who are the authors?
  • Who do you expect to read and use the textbook?
  • How will they author?
  • How they read (format)?
  • How they interact?

Ideally, after asking oneself these questions, one would select one of the many, many options now available to you.

But from an organization’s perspective, having limited resources that we need to dedicate to only a very few specific approaches, we need to settle on just a few. Over the next couple of posts I will outline a few that I am investigating in an effort to devise our strategy going forward. Ultimately, the point of this post (other than just trying to work out my own thoughts) was to make clear some of the boundaries I think are important in this decision making. I don’t have the perfect solution, not sure there is such a thing, but I have been doing this long enough to have erred in both directions, to have chosen the exigent over the long term, but also to have anticipated future possibilities over current realities. I can’t say I will never do the same again, but I know I’m even more likely to if I don’t become aware of where these boundaries are. – SWL

A Day in the life of an “OER Librarian”

OK, so “OER Librarian” is a bit of a stretch – much as I might secretly harbour a desire to be a librarian, I don’t even play one on TV. But recently I was asked to help find some suitable Open Textbook alternatives for a collaborative program in ICT here in BC, and I wanted to reflect on this process and this potential role of “OER Librarian.”

The Request

The initial request was to find suitable open textbook replacements for the “Foundations of Web Development” course and two database courses, “Database Design” and “Database Management.” These are but 3 of 18 courses that make up the program, all of which have both course outlines and learning outcomes well described and existing commercial textbooks in use. Both of these are VERY handy to have as reference when looking for alternatives.

As an aside, one thing I found odd was searching for “textbooks” at all in these areas. We’ll leave aside the whole question of what, in the networked, digital and open age, constitutes a “textbook” anymore – that’s an issue I plan to pick up in my next post. But when it comes to “ICT” and specifically technologies like web development and MySQL, the furthest thing from my mind when I think of learning these is to turn to a “textbook.” The web is literally strewn with good tutorials and references in these areas, ones that aren’t static but live and grow with new releases and learning by their communities. And these were for courses delivered entirely online! And yet…

As my contact explained to me, students were themselves asking for a physical textbook to accompany their course in cases where one didn’t already exist. Fair enough. And in addition, while the instructors were well aware of the reams of materials available for free online and how they could simply point to these, increasingly they were tiring of the ever-present link-rot, finding that each term whole sections of their course would contain broken links due to the seemingly natural decay on the web. Hence – open textbooks!

The Process

I started searching specifically for materials for these 3 courses and quickly realized that I was finding candidates not only for these subjects, but for many of the related courses and topics in the program. This led me to my first insight and action, which was that while you may be searching for one specific thing, it would be foolish of me to simply discard these related quality results. So I expanded the page where I was capturing all of the candidates I’d found to include all of the courses in the ICT Program. It turns out this was a wise thing to do, as even though I hadn’t been asked to find replacements for these others, in two cases when the instructors say how well the free and open candidates fit the course, they felt these would be easy choices. Score one for the good guys!

I am not ashamed to say that one of the first places I turned to was, the OER search portal I built on top of delicious and Google CSW. The first thing I learned was that it had broke (doh!) The whole delicious move had caused some things to go out of whack. Once fixed, I found a few resources, but even though we’ve tried to constrain the open textbook search to just textbook sources, I admit a fair bit of cruft still gets through.

The next obvious (to me) place to turn was College Open Textbooks. They have a large collection of open textbooks classified by Subject that is up to date and added to regularly, in my experience. This turned up some decent possibilities.

College Open Textbooks is a curated collection, and one of the sources they pull from is Connexions. But a direct search of Connexions didn’t find anything particularly different. Similarly wikieducator and wikibooks, other sources the College Open Textbooks aggregates, didn’t offer a lot more than I had found earlier.

I kept trying a bunch of individual sites, FlatWorld Knowledge, Free Technology Academy, and FLOSS Manuals. In each found a few good candidate open textbooks. But still no motherload. I decided to turn to some of the major aggregators/OER portals, the two biggest IMO being OER Commons and MERLOT. I was encouraged to see in MERLOT that “open textbooks” had become a category I could refine a search on, and did find some decent choices But the specificity of this filter is thwarted by a lack of quality control on what gets classified as such, and by the seeming desire to be as inclusive and comprehensive as possible. OER Commons suffers from a similar fate, and in each case finding duplicate upon duplicate would easily discourage most faculty.

The full set of sources I searched is available here. To that list I would add both straight-ahead Google and Bing searches, which were by and large not very productive – lots of results, very few of which were either textbooks or open.

What I Found

There are 18 courses in the ICT Program (not including the Capstone project which doesn’t use a text). In around 7 hours of search I managed to turn up 41 potential candidates for 12 of the sources. Not all of these are explicitly “textbooks”; maybe half are, the other half being courses or manuals that could serve this purpose. The informal feedback I received from my contact at the ICT Program was that in two cases the candidates seemed holus bolus like good replacements. In two others there were ones that with work might serve as the basis for a new textbook.

So let’s say, for arguments sake, that this effort results in 4 commercial texts being replaced with free and open alternatives. These courses are delivered by 4 partnering institutions. So maybe conservatively 50 students/year x 4 courses? At  $100/textbook? That’s a $20,000/year. Even if we include a $10,000 one time cost to transform 2 of these to be more suitable, that’s still a potential $10,000 savingsin the first year passed on to these students. It is of course not as simple as that, but seems very easy to illustrate the value of this exercise and approach.

What I Learned

  • Google on its own won’t save you – generic Google search was nearly useless for this – using “textbook” as one of your search terms doesn’t particularly help, nor does it’s advanced search with usage rights particularly guarantee that you will actually be able to reuse the results.
  • Open is as Open Does – if you want free (and open) textbooks about ICT, teach open source platforms and apps. While there was an absolute dearth of open textbooks around proprietary platforms like Microsoft, there were serveral high quality open textbooks on Linux easily available. This sounds obvious, and clearly there are proprietary softwares that people still want to get formal instruction about, but we have to remember that one of the freedoms preserved by free software is the freedom to LEARN.
  • OER Portals can help… – there are a few decent OER portals, but there is definitely no single “one stop shop.” If asked to recommend to faculty only a couple of general portals (e.g. not specific to any one discipline) then I’d likely focus on OER Commons and Merlot as the two best candidates. That said, discipline-specific engines and portals will almost by definition be better at helping you find what you need, and the extent to which one exists in your specific area, you are fortunate.
  • …and yet have some conflicts of their own – in their haste to bulk up their collections, repositories and other search engines have in fact done themselves a disservice as there is often now a lot of crap in them, or a lot of resources of huge heterogeniety of granluarity, usability and quality.
  • The “reusability paradox” is a real thing – and its corollary is also true: the large the granularity of thing you are trying to find, the less likely you are to find an “exact match” on any of the specific items.
  • It’s all about “the flow” – even if you have some subject matter expertise, if you are not the person ultimately responsible for assembling the curriculum or teaching the course, there will need to be at least one more pass by the people who are, as ultimately they are the ones who will use it. This is not to say that this “OER Librarian” role is useless, far from it, but the ideal for me remains a persistent workflow like I described in the “Open Educator as DJ” where seeking & collecting open content is not something that happens once a year for a few days but an ongoing part of the open educators workflow. Serendipity does not work to a schedule!
  • But until then… – Still, what it is showing me is the possibilities of some hybrids; I can foresee a dynamic approach, supported by any number of systems (a wiki might work well) in which, say, a course description and basic outline is first shared, and various content found at that level by someone with some search expertise, and then both the course units and corresponding searches iterated by instructor/subject matter expert and “oer librarian.” If done in something that allowed for easy “clipping” and republishing of collected work into a new textbook, this iterated approach could go a long way to the creation of a new text that worked at all the levels of granularity it needed to.

Your Favourite Open Textbook Examples?

While I predicted that 2011 would be the “Year of the Open Textbook” (and I don’t think I got that wrong), for me personally it’s looking more like 2012 will be. BCcampus is hoping to help catalyze the production of a number of open textbooks here in BC. While we’re still working on the funding, we’ve created a site to document the work and have been doing research on potential authoring models & platforms (see also the draft of my upcoming talk) as well as existing sources of open textbook content.

Another step that seems obvious to me is to find good examples (regardless of discipline) to be inspired by. Which is where you come in – I would really appreciate links to your favourite examples of open textbooks. Of especially great interest are examples of what I think of as “hybrid” open textbooks, ones that are available in all of web, print and eBook formats. While this used to be just a dream, of writing once but reproducing in many forms, this is incresingly a reality, and one I’d like to see good examples of.

So, what are your favourite examples of Open Textbooks? – SWL

Open Textbooks followup – Where to find good ones?

The feedback on “favourite Open Textbooks” was hugely valueable, but I felt a bit sheepish, like I shouted out for feedback before doing enough due dilligence myself. Because when I did some digging of my own, I found an enormous amount of helpful material already being produced by people focused in specifically on Open Textbooks

So I really appreciate the folks who spent the time offering links to what they felt where the best Open Textbooks. In addition to some twitter replies and emails I received the following submissions through the Google form.

These are really valuable, but I also feel a bit sheepish, like I shouted out for feedback before doing enough due dilligence myself (it’s ok, I can forgive myself if you can, I no longer can keep track of the number of balls in the air, plates spinning, irons in the fire or whatever metaphor for headswimming busy-ness you might care to choose.)

Because when I did some digging of my own, I found an enormous amount of helpful material already being produced by people focused in specifically on Open Textbooks (I am but a Johnny-come-lately.) So to make amends, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve found, lbeit not overly digested or analysed. Share early and often, right?

The first thing I found quite useful were two sites that laid out some criteria for assessing Open Textbooks. So from a Community College Open Textbook Collaborative page on Conexions I found the following criteria:

  • Quality of content, literary merit and format
  • Timeliness
  • Favorable reviews
  • Permanence/lasting value
  • Authority: author
  • Scope
  • Physical quality
  • Format: print, CD-ROM, online, etc.
  • reading level

while from the Open Textbook project at OER Commons I found this set of review criteria:

  • Clarity of course materials
  • Absence of Content errors
  • Appropriateness of course materials
  • Interface
  • Content usefulness
  • Consistency of course materials
  • Suggested changes
  • Exemplary features

as well as

  • Cultural relevance
  • Reading level
  • Readability in terms of logic and flow
  • Accuracy
  • Modularity (or the ability to take apart, mash up and remix the content)
  • Universal accessibility (thus permitting all populations – no matter the physical constraint – to access content)
  • Color printing and graphics as an available option, in all print materials
  • Meet as many specific course articulation requirements as possible
  • Ability to transport content to modalities other than print (cell phones, and other portable devices, for example)
  • Content should be as interoperable on as many platforms as possible
  • How does this open textbook compare with the best commercial textbook available in my discipline, and/or the commercially published textbook that I am using for my course.

These are all for me useful starting points in identifying “quality” Open Textbooks, a job made easier by groups like the Community College Open Textbook Collaborative providing this list of “endorsed” textbook content from the Connexions site, as well as more detailed Reviews on their own site. The Assayer is another site that is attempting to provide reviews of ‘Open Textbooks’ (understood a bit more loosely, hence the scare quotes.)

The other thing that should have been obvious to me but that only became clear as I began to dig into this a bit deeper,is that in addition to providing cheaper textbooks, we can do a service to students by pointing them to free copies of original source texts that are studied in many courses, especially in the humanities. So in addition to the VAST amounts of academic content being freed by the likes of the Open Content Alliance, and the trailblazing work by the pioneering Gutenberg Project, we can now look for (and suggest to students) free eBooks and digital versions from sites like feedbooks, manybooks, and more!

This is just the start of this for me, so expect more regularly over the next year, but I wanted to give back some of what I am finding, especially since I should have done more of this to begin with. – SWL