November 22, 2014

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.


I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.


From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.


Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

Blogs and wikis in formal higher education: examples of open education

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 UBC blogs

Raths, D. (2014) An e-portfolio with no limits Campus Technology, March 2

This is an article on a project by the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, that enables all students to create their own academic web presence through the provision of a university-wide blogging platform. The article provides some good examples of student work done through this project, particularly in history. A recent development at UMW has been the creation of a community site that aggregates the activity of the project, including sites created and content published. The article also provides links to similar projects at Emory University and Davidson College.

It should be noted that the University of British Columbia here in Vancouver established UBC Blogs and UBC Wiki several years ago.

UBC Blogs currently has 22,785 members. Go to to see the many different ways UBC Blogs are being used. Choosing any one is invidious, but the first one I came across is an excellent example, UBC student Matthew Kyriakides’ essay on gentrification and social movements in Vancouver’s downtown east side.

While the blog service is aimed at individual students and faculty members, i.e. anyone with a CWL (campus-wide log-in), the wiki enables group contributions:

The UBC Wiki is a shared space for use by students, staff, and faculty at the University of British Columbia. It serves as a course repository, a personal and collaborative work space, a documentation depository, and a growing guide to everything and anything UBC. The information, resources, and links that it contains are created, expanded, and annotated by its users. It is constantly evolving and changing because every member can add to it and edit any page.

A good example of a UBC wiki is Math Exam Resources:

a community project started in March 2012 by graduate students at the UBC Math Department [that] features hints and worked out solutions to past math exams. The goal of the project is to provide an open and free educational resource to undergraduate students taking math courses, with a strong emphasis for first and second year courses. The provided solutions do not simply provide what the answer is, but instead focus on the processes that it takes to solve the problem. The Math Exam Resources wiki offers:

    • Free study tips, hints and detailed solutions to past exams of the Math Department.
    • High quality content written by math graduate students. The content is reviewed and can be updated on the fly with your comments and feedback.
    • The ability to use the discussion pages of any page in this wiki to dialogue with us or with other students about mathematics!

I strongly recommend that you browse the UBC Blogs and Wiki sites in particular to see how social media are being integrated fully with credit-based online learning at UBC. Most UBC courses still use a learning management system that allows for ‘private’ or ‘course only’ communications, but the blogs and wikis open up the courses to the general public who can comment on blogs or participate in wikis. Linking blogs and wikis to particular courses and controlling access through the use of passwords enables a degree of quality control. Usually it is UBC students who are ‘in control’. This is a development of open education that deserves more attention.

No. 8 aha moment: web 2.0 will change everything in online learning

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A conceptual map for understanding web 2.0 tools (from Bates, 2011). Web 2.0 tools are in blue. Other tools of course could be added, such as MOOCs (xMOOCs way to the left in my view!). The position on the continuum will also be influenced by how the tool is used.

This is the ninth (and last) in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machiWhy is web 2.0nes

5. The web as a universal standard

6. The convergence of online learning (from the periphery to the core)

7. Strategy matters in online learning

This post is a bonus. When I started the series I had only seven aha moments in my head. However, recognizing that the last revelation dated from 1997 I was forced to reflect on what had happened over the last sixteen years. Even allowing for the fact it often takes time to separate the signal from the noise, had I gone brain-dead in that period, an old man stuck in the past? Surely something significant must have happened, given the rapid change in technology.

Well, yes, there is one major development for me in this period that I believe will radically change online learning, even though it is taking a long time, and has nowhere near reached its full potential.

What was the discovery? (2007)

A broad range of tools with common characteristics that are conveniently lumped together as web 2.0 will fundamentally change the design of online learning and even more significantly, the relationship between post-secondary instructor and student.

Web 2.0 is defined as including social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), video sharing sites, blogs, wikis, online games, virtual worlds, e-portfolios and mobile applications (from O’Reilly, 2005)

How did this discovery come about?

Three things came together in 2007. I started to write this blog, using WordPress. Its purpose was rather academic – to bring together all in one place a wide range of online resources about online and distance learning that could be used by instructors and post-graduate students researching or studying online or distance learning. I didn’t fully realise at the time the power and the influence such a modest enterprise could have, because I didn’t at the time fully understand the way social media work. However, it did get me established as a ‘contributor’ using at least a few web 2.0 tools. (It should be remembered that the term wasn’t even coined until 2005)

The second thing that happened was that I went to a ‘show-and-tell’ of new applications of learning technologies at Vancouver Community College and saw for the first time a demonstration of a post-graduate online course developed at UBC by David Porter, David Vogt, and Jeff Miller, called ETEC 522, which used WordPress as the course management system. In particular WordPress had been deliberately chosen to enable students to contribute content themselves to the course. Several other exposures to web 2.0 tools followed shortly after, particularly from instructors at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, who were (and are) using mobile learning in interesting and innovative ways.

The third thing that happened was that I was then approached by two Australians, Mark Lee of Charles Sturt University and Christine McLoughlin of the Australian Catholic University, to write a chapter for a new book they were editing on web 2.0 based e-learning (which was very unwise of them, as at the time I knew little about the topic.) This forced me both to research more fully the topic, and pull together my thoughts on what was happening.

Since then, as I have become increasing familiar with web 2.0 tools and their application, I have grown increasingly convinced that they have the power to really revolutionize university teaching in particular. However, to date I have seen very few examples of such a revolutionary approach within the formal post-secondary education sector (where in my view the greatest value of these tools lies).

Why is web 2.0 significant? 

Basically because these tools give learners the power to find, adapt, create, share and publish information easily, and at very low or no cost. This represents the potential for a very significant shift in power from the teacher to the learner.

The general characteristics of web 2.0 are as follows:

  • End-user control/authoring
  • Collaboration and sharing
  • Collective intelligence
  • Low-cost/free, adaptive software
  • Rich media
  • Portability/mobility

With respect to educational uses, web 2.0 tools have the potential for the following:

  • facilitating the kind of skills required by knowledge workers in the 21st century, in particular, knowledge management, independent learning, and multimedia communication skills, as well as more traditional skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, which are often not taught well in more traditional forms of education based for example on lectures or learning management systems
  • web 2.0 tools are more conducive to constructivist approaches to learning (see diagram at the head of this post), which I believe leads to deeper forms of understanding and more flexible approaches to developing, managing and applying  knowledge
  • these tools are familiar to most students and are used by them on a daily basis for other purposes (personal and social). Although students often are not initially aware of how these tools can also help in their studies, they are usually open and ready to use such tools when they can see the obvious benefits for assisting their learning
  • they can be used to engage students in meaningful and interesting activities, making learning more interactive and more social
  • they will eventually force us to rethink completely the way we assess student learning. These tools in the form of e-portfolios and multimedia assignments allow students to demonstrate their learning directly, without the need for paper and pencil examinations or computer-marked assignments that measure only a very limited form of learning.

However, this potential has yet to be fully realised in post-secondary education. This requires re-design and re-thinking of both the purpose and the means of post-secondary education.

The need for course re-design

The use of these tools need to be driven by the learning objectives. Indeed these tools enable us to achieve different learning objectives from more traditional modes of teaching, with a particular emphasis on intellectual skills development. There are various ways in which this can be done, so I just give some examples below.

An advanced course design might be built around the following:

  • core skill: knowledge management (how to find, analyze, evaluate and apply information)
  • open content within a learning design: students are given the learning objectives, but are encouraged and assisted to select and analyze content already existing on the web
  • online project work with activities that support the development of the target skills and competencies identified earlier
  • student-generated multimedia content: students choose content and demonstrate what they have found through text, graphics, video and audio presentations
  • peer review and discussion
  • assessment by e-portfolios.

Examples might be

  • students using the core principles of historiography to research online and develop a history of a foreign city over the last 50 years, with strong narratives and themes that the students themselves identify
  • use of virtual worlds to train border service agents (see Loyalist College) or other jobs that require a range of intellectual and procedural skills
  • use of ‘public’ wikis to discuss contemporary political events in a foreign country, drawing in contributions from key players or the public within that country
  • research on social behaviour by tracking behaviour of dog owners in public parks, supplemented by video examples and interviews

It is not difficult to think of many different ways these tools could be used to empower learners. What is needed though is a commitment to develop 21st century skills embedded within a subject domain, and to work out how these tools could best be used by students for their learning. This though would require a shift away from the instructor delivering information, and more to a role where the instructor is a facilitator, guide and evaluator.


Web 2.0 tools could be revolutionary for changing the way we teach in post-secondary education, but to date, as happens almost always with new technology initially, they have been mainly added on to conventional teaching, whether in classroom teaching or online, or are used outside the formal, credit-based system (as with MOOCs or communities of practice). However, I strongly believe that over time, as instructors, students and employers begin to understand the value of such tools, they will become increasingly the core around which we will build educational delivery, even, or especially, for credit-based learning.


I will do a separate post explaining why I have not included other topics as seminal for understanding the role of educational technology and online learning, such as open educational resources or MOOCs. Frankly, I don’t see these as gamechangers, at least not in the way they are being deployed at the moment.

Over to you

Having said that, what have been the main seminal discoveries for you in educational technology and online learning? What would you have included in the list, and why?


Bates, T. (2011) Understanding web 2.0 and its implications for education in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds. ) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching Hershey PA: Information Science Reference

O’Reilly, T. (2005) Web 2.0 Compact definition? O’Reilly Radar, October 10 (retrieved July 23, 2006 from

An archive of alI I know about online learning

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At the recent COHERE conference I delivered two keynotes:

  • Meeting the challenge of technology: are we failing as managers?
  • Designing university teaching to meet the needs of 21st century students.

The video recording of these two keynotes encapsulates very well my views and experience in these areas, and the video and sound quality is excellent.

As I said at the end of the conference, I’ve dumped all my knowledge on the table, so if you can stand the irony of nearly two hours lecturing about the need for better management and more interactive learning, you can scrape up my knowledge by going to the COHERE website.

Masochists and ironists – enjoy!

Online Learning and Personal Change: the Movie

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Vancouver Community College organized a stimulating faculty development workshop in April called ‘Technology Trends and the Courage to Adapt’, about the challenge technology presents to instructors. This involved two presentations, one from Gary Poole, of UBC, who focused on personal issues in dealing with change, and one from me about the changes needed in post-secondary teaching.

The whole 90 minute session is now available on YouTube, in 15 minute ‘chunks’, from here.

Some of you have already downloaded my slides from this session under the heading of’Designing Online Learning for the 21st Century’. If you haven’t already got the slides and would like a copy after seeing the videos, send me an e-mail.


Technology isn’t letting up. In addition to new technologies outside the LMS, such as blogs, wikis, e-portfolios, and mobile learning, now LMSs are undergoing some radical changes. What does this mean for the faculty member? In this session, we look at a few of the more significant developments, in particular how some instructors have incorporated some of these technologies, and suggest some simple steps or strategies for instructors to be innovative without getting overwhelmed by the changes in technology. Put simply, change takes courage – to step outside our comfort zones, to risk the uncertain, and to embrace the unfamiliar with our students. In this session, we will look at why change can be difficult, both individually and institutionally, with the hope that we can approach change more constructively and thoughtfully.