Category Archives: OpenTextBooks

Quick Notes: Defining Textbook Structure and Elements

Yesterday I joined an Office Hours session run by the Rebus Community, which was a presentation by  Dave Ernst, (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and  Executive Director of the Open Textbook Network). He spoke about  Defining Textbook Structure and Elements, essentially summarizing a chapter on developing text book structure from guide by the Open Textbook Network for teachers who are creating open textbooks. That resource, and the Rebus community look like they are well worth a look if you are not already familiar with them. Here are my notes mixed with my own reflection & comment.


What makes a textbook different from a monogram?

Books are divided into various slices: some or all of the following may be present: Book ⟹ Unit ⟹ Chapter ⟹ Section ⟹ Sub-section. I see parallels between this and the sort of divisions envisaged by schema which define course structures (e.g. OER Schema).

In a text book that Dave wishes to encapsulate the idea that curriculum (content) is separate from instruction (teaching the content). A textbook is content that is structured in such a way that facilitates instruction. This builds on lessons in instructional design learnt in creating online courses.

Structural elements have been defined (i.e. Openers, Closers, and ‘Integrated Pedagogic Devices’) into which any part of the book hierarchy can be split. The Opener of a book corresponds to the Front Matter, the Closer to the Back Matter the rest is in the Body. But Units, Chapters Sections can also have these structural elements. There were various examples of what might be part of each of these elements: the Opener may include an introduction, learning objectives, focus questions; the integrated pedagogic devices in the main content may be call outs or info boxes, case studies, illustrations; the Closer may have a summary, further reading and review questions (there were many other examples). Repeat to emphasize: these elements are relevant to any level of division of a book.

Dave two factors regarding the content of a book: scope (what is to be covered) and sequence (the order to cover it in). For any topic, teachers will differ in opinion as to what the optimum scope and sequence are–holy wars have been fought over sequence in particular. There was an interesting comment about teachers wanting to re-purpose an open textbook to have the same content in a different order–this is what Open is for.

Agreeing the structure of  a book (do you want units? do you want subsections?), the structural elements for each part, and the scope and sequence for each part, will give you the outline of the book and the elements to assist students in understanding what is covered. I know how well this can work from having taken part in a booksprint with colleagues.

I found a lot of interest in the parallels between instructional design of online courses and textbooks, and in the discussion about how the technology of printing affected the designs of textbooks (see also Euclid in colour and technology for learning).

Many thanks to Dave Ernst, Rebus and all on the call.


[Edited 13 Sept 2018 @ 15:30 to correct an accidental misattribution of the OTN guide for teachers who are creating open textbooks.]

Using the WordPress REST API to post a book from WikiSource to PressBooks with python

I am using Pressbooks to build an online edition of Southey and Coleridge’s Omniana. I transcribed the text for Volume I on wikisource. This post is about how I got that text into pressbooks; copy and paste didn’t appeal, so I thought I would try using the WordPress REST API. You could probably write a PHP plugin that would do this, but I find python a bit easier for exploratory work, so I used that.

Getting the data from Wikisource is reasonably trivial. On wikisource I have transcluded the page transcriptions into a single HTML file of the whole book. This file is relatively easy to parse into the individual articles for posting to Pressbooks, especially as I added <hr /> tags before each article (even the first) and added stop at the end.

In the longer term I want to start indexing the PressBook Omniana using wikidata for linked data. This will let me look at the semantic graph of what Southey and Coleridge were interested in. Continue reading

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?

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Initial thoughts on EPUB-WEB (Portable Documents for the Open Web Platform)

In a W3C Unofficial Draft White Paper “Advancing Portable Documents for the Open Web Platform: EPUB-WEB” published 21 Nov 2014, Markus Gulling of IPDF (curators of the EPUB standards) and Ivan Herman of W3C (curators of web standards) have highlighted the potential of a specification that brings EPUB on to the Web. Informally known as EPUB-WEB, the vision is that this specification would make “EPUB a first-class citizen of the Open Web Platform and as a result significantly reduce the complexity of deploying EPUB content into browsers, for online as well as offline consumption”

EPUB3 is based mostly on web standards, i.e. a collection of HTML5 files with associated bells and whistles (embedded video, audio, SVG, JavaScript, CSS) held in a zip archive with an XML manifest  to tell an application what is there and what order to display it in. So at first EPUB-WEB seems straightforward: get rid of the zip archive, use the manifest to point to files anywhere on the web (IMS Content Packaging has allowed a similar route with “logical packages” which allow for both local and remote components). But the draft white papers raises some interesting points

Firstly, on that manifest, in section 3.1 the authors note that while the zip file + XML manifest is a common pattern:

“W3C’s Web Application Working Group has, in its new charter, the task of defining a general packaging format for the Web to encompass the needs of various applications (like installing Web Applications or downloading data for local processing). It is probably advantageous for EPUB-WEB to adopt this format, thereby being compatible with what Web Browsers would implement anyway. While this general packaging format could hypothetically be compatible with the ZIP+XML manifest format used by EPUB (and also by the Open Document Format [ODF]) the broader requirements of installable applications and other types of content, and efficient incremental transmission over networks, may well imply a different and incompatible packaging format.”

Secondly, there’s a question about how you identify documents (and fragments within documents) reliably when they may be either online or off-line depending on whether the user has decided to “archive” them (and I think archive here includes download onto an ebook reader to take on holiday). “What is the URI of the offline version of the document”. Interestingly there is a link drawn with the W3C Annotation Working Group:

The recently formed W3C Annotation Working Group has a joint deliverable with the W3C Web Application Working Group called “Robust Anchoring”. This deliverable will provide a general framework for anchoring; and, although defined within the framework of annotations, the specification can also be used for other fragment identification use cases. Similarly, the W3C Media Fragments specification [media-frags] may prove useful to address some of the use cases.

And thirdly there is (of course) Metadata. EPUB 3 has plenty of places to put your Metadata. Most conventional publishing needs for metadata inside the EPUB file are covered with the range of metadata allowed in the manifest. However, there is additional potential for in-line metadata that is “agnostic to online and offline modes” that will “seamlessly support  discovery and harvesting by both generic Web search engines, as well as dedicated bibliographic/archival/retailer systems” The note points to in all but name:

The adoption of HTML as the vehicle for expressing publication-level metadata (i.e., using RDFa and/or Microdata  for metadata like authors or title) would have the added benefits of better I18N support than XML or JSON formats.

And what about application to learning? Taken in conjunction with the Annotation work starting at W3C, the scope for eTextBooks online (or whatever you want to call educational use of EPUBWeb for education) seems clear. One area that seems important for education use that seems inadequately addressed in the draft white paper is alternative presentations that would make the material remixable and adaptable to meet individual learner needs. There a little in draft about presentation control and personalization, but it rather limited: changing the font size or page layout rather than changing the learning pathway.

Jisc Observatory report on Ebooks in Education

The joint CETIS and UKOLN Observatory has just published a report “Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education” written by James Clay. My CETIS colleague Li and I wrote the foreword for this report, which I’ve reproduced here but really you would be better going to the observatory and downloading the whole report.
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