Tag Archives: epub

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 PressBooks.com and to host yourself from PressBooks.org. 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 hypothe.is, 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 schema.org metadata into the HTML content in such a way that it becomes transportable (easy, I think) and editable on import (harder).

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 schema.org 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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