PressBooks and ePub as an OER format.

PressBooks does a reasonable job of importing ePub, so that ePub can be used as a portable format for open text books. But, of course, there are limits.

I have been really impressed with PressBooks, the extension to WordPress for authoring eBooks. Like WordPress it is available as a hosted service from and to host yourself from I have been using the latter for a few months. It looks like a great way of authoring, hosting, using, and distributing open books. Reports like this from Steel Wagstaff about Publishing Open Textbooks at UW-Madison really show the possibilities for education that open up if you do that. There you can read what work Steel and others have been doing around PressBooks for authoring open textbooks, with interaction (using, and h5p), connections to their VLE (LTI), and responsible learning analytics (xAPI).

PressBooks also supports replication of content from one PressBook install to another, which is great, but what is even greater is support of import from other content creation systems. We’re not wanting monoculture here.

Open text books are, of course, a type of Open Educational Resource, and so when thinking about PressBooks as a platform for open text books you’re also thinking about PressBooks and OER. So what aspects of text-books-as-OER does PressBooks support? What aspects should it support?

OER: DERPable, 5Rs & ALMS

Frameworks for thinking about requirements for openness in educational resources go back to the very start of the OER movement. Back in the early 2000s, when JISC was thinking about repositories and Learning Objects as ways of sharing educational resources, Charles Duncan used to talk about the need for resources to be DERPable: Discoverable, Editable, Repurposable and Portable. At about the same time in the US, David Wiley was defining Open Content in terms of four, later five Rs and ALMS. The five Rs are well known: the permissions to Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. ALMS is a less memorable, more tortured acronym, relating to technical choices that affect openness in practice. The choices relate to: Access to editing tools, the Level of expertise required to use these tools, the content being Meaningfully editable, and being Self-sourced (i.e. there not being separate source and distribution files).

Portability of ePub and editing in PressBooks

I tend to approach these terms back to front: I am interested in portable formats for disseminating resources, and systems that allow these to be edited. For eBooks / open textbooks my format of choice for portability is currently ePub, which is essentially HTML and other assets (images, stylesheets, etc.) with metadata, in a zip archive. Being HTML-based, ePub is largely self-sourced, and can be edited with suitable tools (though there may be caveats around some of the other assets such as images and diagrams). Furthermore, WordPress in general and PressBooks specifically makes editing, repurposing and distributing easy without requiring knowledge of HTML. It’s a good platform for remixing, revising, reusing, retaining content. And the key to this whole ramble of a blog post is the ‘import from ePub‘ feature.

So how does  the combination of ePub and PressBooks work in practice. I can go to OpenStax, and download one of their text books as ePub. As far as I can see the best-known open textbook project doesn’t seem to make ePub available (Apple’s iPub is similar, but I don’t do iBooks so couldn’t download one). So I went to Siyavula and downloaded one of their CC:BY textbooks as an ePub. Chose that download for import into PressBooks and got a screen that lets me choose which parts of the ePub to import and what type of content to import it as.

List of sections of the ePub with tick box for whether to import in PressBooks, and radio button options for what type of book part to import as

After choosing which parts to import and hitting the import button at the bottom of the page, the content is there to edit and republish in PressBooks.

From here you can edit or add content (including by import from other sources), rearrange the content, and set options for publishing it. There is other work to be done. You will need to choose a decent theme to display your book with style. You will also need to make sure internal links work as your PressBooks permalink URL scheme might not match the URLs embedded in the content. How easy this is will vary depending on choices made when the book was created and your own knowledge of some of the WordPress tools that can be used to make bulk edits.

I am not really interested in distributing maths text books, so I won’t link to the end result of this specific example. I did once write a book in a book sprint with some colleagues, and that was published as an ePub. So here an imported & republished version of Into The Wild (PressBook edition).  I didn’t do much polishing of this: it uses a stock theme, and I haven’t fixed internal links, e.g. footnotes.


Of course there are limits to this approach. I do not expect that much (if any) of the really interesting interactive content would survive a trip through ePub. Also much of Steel’s work that I described up at the top is PressBook platform specific. So that’s where cloning from PressBooks to PressBooks becomes useful. But ePub remains a viable way of getting textbook content into the PressBooks platform.

Also, while WordPress in general, and hence PressBooks, is a great way of distributing content, I haven’t looked much at whether metadata from the ePub is imported. On first sight none of it is, so there is work to do here in order to make the imported books discoverable. That applies to the package level metadata in ePubs, which is a separate file from the content. However, what also really interests me is the possibility of embedding education-specific metadata into the HTML content in such a way that it becomes transportable (easy, I think) and editable on import (harder).

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