June 22, 2018

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

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.

Background

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.

Challenges

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.

Conclusions

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.

Comments

  1. Hi Tony,

    You have been a great (and very patient) early adopter of the technology and we are really grateful for your experienced eye working through the authoring process with us & providing us feedback.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the strongest feature of PressBooks (and one that I don’t think you have had the opportunity to explore yet) is that it provides flexibility for the student in how they want to use the content. The PressBooks output engine gives you a website version of the book, an epub, a PDF plus a number of remixable formats that makes the content portable for future remix. We try to put as few constraints on how the content can be used, and make it available at the end in numerous formats for both consuming and adapting. For example, the recently published Geography textbook is available in 9 different formats, all created from that single book. That was a major requirement of our project – make it as flexible as possible for students and for people who may want to remix these books in the future (and to make it truly work for faculty I would love to extend PressBooks to output a Word version of the book since that is, by far, THE remix tool of choice of most faculty).

    The distinction between an LMS and a textbook authoring platform was a concious decision. We didn’t want to remake an LMS, but we do want to have something that could integrate with an LMS (and if you look at some of the work being done by FunnyMonkey and David Wiley’s Lumen Learning on PressBooks you will see that they are developing the technical hooks via LTI integration that will hook PB into an LTI compliant LMS making it an extension of the LMS. This LTI integration is actually baked into WordPress and (for LMS’s that support LTI integration like Moodle), getting a book from PressBooks into an LMS shouldn’t be a huge technical issue. But, for now, that is a nut that we need help to crack.

    Indeed, all the issues you have identified are very solveable issues. But for an open source project to really succeed we need developers to help contribute. Our programmer, Brad Payne, has done wonderful work extending the platform, but he is only one developer. And only par time to our project. Now, Brad has also helped to nurture a burgeoning developer community, but it is really small right now.

    I don’t say all this to bemoan our situation. We are, indeed, very lucky to even have a developer who has the skills to be able to do all of this (and Brad has done all of this). But rather to make a point that educational technology needs to support a developer community. There are very few actual developers in higher ed institutions in the position to contribute to open source and open ed projects, and those resources are sorely needed if we are ever going to hope to develop the types of technical systems many of us so desperately want.

    So, if you know a developer who wants to help, send them our way 🙂 https://github.com/BCcampus/pressbooks-textbook

  2. Was just talking with a teacher who pointed me to a recent Planet Money piece on the rising cost of textbooks. The issue isn’t new, of course, but the time is right to get more deeply into open textbooks. Especially given shifts in pedagogical models, including connectivism.

    Tony’s point on collaborative editing is an important one. In the current context, it makes more sense than ever to have a variety of people contribute to a textbook. Including learners themselves. Haven’t had much success in getting students rework material from a Wikibook, in part because the tool isn’t that convenient for everyone involved. Got pretty excited first running across Ben Batler’s WP Document Revision. With a bit of tweaking, it might be possible to integrate it further in the PressBooks-specific workflow.

    Granularity is also an important issue. Chapters make sense, as a unit of work, but different elements within a chapter could be reused, remixed, revised, etc.

    In fact, there’s an intriguing connection between textbooks and Learning Objects or Education Resources. Each activity in Tony’s book could be its own resource, linked to other pieces scattered across the ‘Net. Tim Berners-Lee has a neat model for “Five Star Open Data”, which puts resources in the midst of the Web of Data. For education, the benefits could be huge.

    But we need very convenient tools for people to easily and seamless produce and process the content. After several years of “user-generated content” (from short text snippets to full video mashups), it sounds like we have yet to invent the tools learners and teachers need to construct their own material. Which might be why we still rely on commercial publishers but a significant portion of the material we use.

Speak Your Mind

*