Fleshing out the pedagogical features of textbooks

In a post from last week I wrote about some of the research I’ve begun doing around the pedagogical features of a textbook as I try to identify the features of textbooks that we need to make sure we include as we begin to construct open textbooks.

In my initial scan, I’ve found a few interesting papers & studies looking at the effectiveness of pedagogical aids in textbooks. This morning I read two papers from Regan Gurung at the University of Wisconsin (Pedagogical Aids and Student Performance published in 2003 & Pedagogical Aids: Learning Enhancers or Dangerous Detours? from 2004) and one earlier paper from 1996 from Santa Clara University (Wayne Weiten, Rosanna Guadagno & Cynthia Beck) titled Student’s Perceptions of Textbook Pedagogical Aids.

These 3 papers are specific to Psychology textbooks and are primarily built around student perceptions of the pedagogical aids in the books & whether or not students used them.

Student perceptions are important, especially if they do not use a pedagogical aide since an “unused pedagogical aide cannot facilitate learning” (Weiten, Guadango & Beck 1996), but perception is just one factor I want to look at & Gurung’s research digs a bit deeper than student perceptions to see if there is a connection between student use of pedagogical aids and better exam performance.

Weiten, Guadango & Beck surveyed 134 students asking them how familiar they were with the different pedagogical aids in their textbook, the probability of use and their perceived value of each aid. From their research, Weiten, Guadango & Beck showed that the top 3 pedagogical aids students used in their textbooks were bold-faced technical terms, chapter & section summaries & glossaries.

Mean Ratings of Pedagogical Aids (Weiten, Guadango & Beck, 1996)

An interesting takeaway from their research (although it is over 20 years old now) is that at the time “virtually no research has assessed the usefulness of the numerous pedagogical aids that are now standard far in psychology texts”. Meaning that, in the views of these researchers, the features of a textbook that have been put in place to help student learn weren’t put there because they have been shown to help student learn.

Again, the caveat that I am looking at research from 20 years ago, but so far my scan has shown something similar – there is not a huge amount of empirical  research on whether these features of a textbook actually help student learn. In fact, some of the research from Gurung hints at something quite the opposite; that there may be some textbook features in use that we take for granted that may actually hurt student performance.

Do they help or hinder?

In Gurung’s 2003 research Pedagogical Aids and Student Performance,  Gurung surveyed more than 200 undergraduate students and asked them to rate the usefulness of 10 pedagogical aids and instructional techniques (Gurung’s research wasn’t specific to textbook aids, but included a number of textbook specific aids like outlines, chapter summaries & reviews, boldfaced & italicized terms, key terms & practice questions found in a textbook).

Looking at the types of aids mentioned in the research that are textbook specific (ie eliminating items like paper assignments and research participation) and the results showed that the top textbook 3 aids used by students were boldface terms, italicized terms and practice questions (with chapter summaries & reviews a very close 4th). In terms of helpfulness, students rated boldfaced (92%) and italicized (81%) terms as the most useful pedagogical aid, followed by practice tests questions (77%), and chapter summaries & reviews (73%) all as being moderately to extremely helpful.

Reported Use & Helpfulness of Pedagogical aids (Gurung, 2003)

Reported Use & Helpfulness of Pedagogical aids (Gurung, 2003)

When Gurung compared the reported use and helpfulness of the textbook specific aids and student performance based on their test scores he determined that “correlation analysis did not show any positive relations between the reported use of a pedagogical aids and learning as measured by exam performance” and that textbook authors, “…should not feel pressured to load their books with such aids.” Gurung also notes that the lack of effectiveness of textbook pedagogical aids isn’t an isolated finding & quotes research from 2001 by Blach (guess what is going high on my list for further reading).

Can pedagogical aids actually hurt learning?

One of the really interesting findings from Gurungs 2003 paper was that there was one correlation between a pedagogical aid and exam outcomes was “significant” and that had to do with key terms. Students who rated key terms as being helpful had lower test scores than those who did not use key terms. However, Gurung does note that “the correlational nature of the data does not allow for a true test of this question (can a pedagogical aid hurt exam performance)” and there are a few significant limitations to the research, including not accounting for student performance, ability or effort, nor the amount of time the student spent studying. Also important to note that Gurung only looks at one outcome; exam performance.

Still, it isn’t hard to see how a pedagogical aid could negatively affect student performance if the student tries to get by on the built in aids as an alternative to doing the actual reading. If a student sees the aid as a shortcut to doing the actual reading, then it isn’t hard to imagine that these tools could affect student learning. A scenario where a student is crunched for time and instead of doing the reading for the course instead relies on the chapter summaries to give them all the information could be fairly common.

Gurung followed up his 2003 research with a 2004 study that supports the ineffectiveness of the pedagogical aids we seem to take for granted. In his paper Pedagogical Aids: Learning Enhancers or Dangerous Detours? Gurung assessed 240 introductory psychology undergraduates (again looking at test scores) and showed that the reported use of aids “did not positively relate to student performance on any exams” and again showed that key terms might hurt test performance. In this research, Gurung did try to account for the 2 limitations he noted in his first, namely student ability & time studying.

My takeaway

I’m still early in my research so it is hard to draw any definite conclusions yet. But articles like these help me flesh out pedagogical features of our textbooks. For example, all the articles note that students use bold and italicized text (whether it is actually increases their learning is another matter all together). But knowing that those features will actually be used by students helps to guide our advice to open textbook authors. When you make a textbook, concentrate on the way you use bold and italicized text because students will be looking for that to help them understand the content.

This is also helping curb my assumptions that just because something appears in a lot of textbooks doesn’t mean it is either a good nor a proven aid to learning, or that students will use the aid in the way it is intended. What we may be doing when we add features that we think students will use to connect deeply with the material may, in fact, be convenient devices students use to shortcut their learning. I’ll be interested to see if this issue of pedagogical feature as shortcut instead of pathway to deeper understanding comes up more in the literature.

References

Weiten, W., Guadagno, R. E., & Beck, C. A. (1996). Student’s Perceptions of Textbook Pedagogical Aids. Teaching of Psychology, 23(2), 105-107. doi:10.1207/s15328023top2302_8

Gurung, R. A. R. (2004). Pedagogical Aids: Learning Enhancers or Dangerous Detours? Teaching of Psychology, 31(3), 164-166. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3103_1

Gurung, R. A. R. (2003). Pedagogical Aids and Student Performance. Teaching of Psychology, 30(2), 92-95. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP3002_01

 

Complex Simplicity

Brian’s been a-blogging, and I am grateful for his latest post where he dives into his own personal edtech history.

I took part in a lot of conferences, workshops and focus groups with higher education people who attended those “learning object” sessions because they were interested in reusing materials using the as-yet untapped power of the world wide web. I listened as “serious” educational leaders dictated that the platforms require users to adopt unfathomable and complex metadata to ensure that no tangential learning materials be encountered by mistake. I took part in meeting after meeting where technology leaders and faculty representatives demanded strict access controls to limit sharing within elite consortia or collections of funding partners, or even within faculties or departments. Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

I’m grateful that he wrote that because these stories and experiences from early efforts to build systems that enable reuse of OER are important for me to hear. They help me understand what has and has not worked with these earlier efforts and give me a historical frame of reference for the work I am doing now. Learn from our collective edtech history.

Brian’s post (and a conversation I’ve been having with Adam Hyde in response to my post yesterday about the work Brad has been doing to extend PressBooks to enable some of that unfathomable and complex metadata that Brian referred to) have been making me thinking about remix & audience. Specifically, the different audiences we have who may want to reuse or remix the content we are creating as part of the open textbook project.

First, there are educators; the faculty. The people who are using the resource on the ground in their class. For this group, simplicity & ease of use are key consideration. As Brian points out:

Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless.

Adam’s comment underscores that point

The trick is in the re-use. Making it easy to reuse. I think copy and paste is MUCH slighted in this area. It solves a lot of problems that other ‘more sophisticated’ approaches don’t (and its OS independent). IMHO tech systems that try and ‘enable’ remix beyond what C+P can do often create problems and ‘dis-empower’ people since somehow the techno whizzy magic makes them forget that Cut and Paste even exists

The power of cut and paste. Such a simple tool. And one I bet that most educators use on a routine basis. I wonder what kind of answer you would get from faculty if you asked them if they have ever “remixed” content? Chances are the answer would be no. But ask them if they have ever cut and paste content from one place and used it in another and the answer might be different. Ever copied a photo off a webpage and used in a lecture presentation? Congratulations! You have just remixed content! You have taken something from one context and reused it in another (and I appreciate Adam’s point about the language we use to talk about this remix/adapt/translation behaviour that we are trying to enable).

Really, isn’t a course a remix? I mean, you are taking a whole bunch of disparate content – a textbook from here, some course readings from here, some quiz questions you create, a YouTube video – and you stick it all together to create “a course”. Something new. Something that didn’t exist before. Made from disparate parts. Isn’t a course the result of remixing a whack of content together? (Before the ID’s reading this go apoplectic, I know that there is much more than content selection that goes into course development. My example is merely to make the point that “remix” is something educators do all the time already).

So, when it comes to enabling faculty to “remix” our open textbooks, maybe we need to focus more on really simple things like cut and paste. I wonder if that message would resonate with faculty moreso than “remix this textbook” which, as you can imagine, is a pretty daunting task for reasons beyond the technical challenges (like licensing). Here is a textbook. Feel free to copy and paste a case study for your own course notes. Like that chart in chapter 3? Copy it. Put it in your presentation.

Easy. Simple. That is the mantra for audience #1.

Then there is the second audience group for our content where remix has a different, grander meaning. Bigger scale. I think of projects like ours. What can I do to our content now to make it easier for a future project like ours to reuse our material? This is where the importance of things like metadata comes in. For these projects, we need to pay attention to more complex pieces to ensure that the content can be shared and reused by these other projects at scale. Want to take 12 books from our collection and put them in yours? Here’s a way to do that. Want to extract all the self assessment questions from that Sociology textbook we made? Oh, here is an API that allows that.

Both those audiences need to be satisfied if we really want our project to have lasting value, both locally within BC and for the wider education system.

 

The pedagogical features of a textbook

Ever since I’ve started working on the BC open textbook project, one of the bits of research that I’ve wanted to do was deconstruct “the textbook” to dig into what exactly are the pedagogical features that make a textbook a textbook. As we enter into the creation phase of open textbooks – and with a book sprint coming up in June where we will be creating a textbook from scratch in 4 days – I’ve started taking a closer look at what makes a textbook a textbook.

Specifically I am trying to identify a couple of things.

First, I want to identify a list of common pedagogical features that textbooks have that make them different from other types of books. By features I mean what are the specific elements or attributes of a textbook that help students understand the content in the book. This can range from chapter outlines and summaries to practice questions and glossaries.

Second, I want to find out to what degree do those pedagogical features actually help students understand the content. Here I am searching for some empirical research that shows that specific features of a textbook may be more useful than others when it comes to helping students learn.

Third, does the format of the textbook change or alter the usefulness of a pedagogical feature? By this I mean are there features that were created specifically for printed textbooks that may not be relevant to an electronic version of the book, and are there pedagogical elements that can be done in the electronic version that can’t be done (or are done differently) in the printed version? This third question is challenging, but is important in the context of our work since students have the choice of format types – physical copies or electronic copies and the work we are doing has to be sensitive to the formats (and I think I have a future post brewing that may touch upon my frustration at having to work with both formats, both from a technical perspective and from an educational culture perspective. I’ve easily spent a majority of my time dealing with issues around “the print” vs issues with “the electronic”).

So far I’ve identified 24 different pedagogical features (or aids as I have seen them referred to) that are commonly found in textbooks. These are:

Pedagogical Aid/Feature
Chapter Objectives Chapter Learning Outcomes Chapter Outline
Checklists Headings & Subheadings Bold & Italicized text
Table of Figures Index Focus Questions
Chapter Summary or Review  Case Studies and Vignettes  Glossary/Key Terms
Demonstrations  Examples of Best Practices Maps
Interviews  Illustrations (which include photos, diagrams, charts & figures) Simulations
Further Reading suggestions Timelines Practice Questions
Multimedia (audio/video) Pronunciation Guide Table of Contents

From here, I am creating a description of what the feature is, what pedagogical purpose it might have for learners, what research I can find about that feature to see if there is any evidence that these aids help students, and, finally, some thoughts around how the feature might be different in the print and electronic versions of a textbook.

There is one pedagogical feature that I have intentionally left off of this list is, arguably, the most important pedagogical feature and that is structure. A strong structure provides a logical, well thought out path for students to navigate the content. But given the importance of structure, I think I need to tackle that on its own, perhaps using these 5 rules of textbook structure as a starting point.

Extending PressBooks

The other reasons I am trying to take this deconstructionist approach to analyzing features of a textbook is that we want to see if there are ways we can extend PressBooks to accommodate what we identify as the most useful pedagogical features. For example, in the user interface of PressBooks, Brad Payne has built some textbook specific buttons that insert specific types of content blocks into PressBooks (I spoke a bit about this in an earlier blog post). What we want to do is not only build buttons in the editing interface that inserts visible elements (like say a green box around a case study), but also inserts metadata that identifies that specific pedagogical feature as a chapter summary. Brad has been looking at the emerging Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) to see how we can begin to tag bits and pieces of the content in our textbook.

This is pretty exciting stuff. Theoretically, if we create a button in the user interface to insert a case study into the textbook, it could also insert metadata that identifies that block of content as a case study. Once you have content identified, you could then build API’s that could extract the textbook specific content chunks. From a reuse and remixability perspective, this makes a textbook modular. Build an API that can, for example, extract just the practice questions in a book and you can create a separate practice question handbook with nothing but the practice questions from the book. In essence, we can make the book modular and with that modularity comes flexibility to potentially mix and match content in interesting and unique ways.

But before we get to the point where we could have modular & remixable content, we need to focus and determine what are the really useful pedagogical features of a textbook that improves student learning. Once we can answer that, then we have some footing to proceed to the next step & build the technology to enable that.

 

Mozilla backs away from Persona. What might that mean for Backpack?

Earlier this week Mozilla announced that it was stepping away from developing Persona and will be transitioning the project to community ownership. Persona is a federated single sign-on identity project that Mozilla has been developing. It is used for a number of Mozilla projects, including Webmaker and Backpack.

Chances are, if you have ever earned an open badge, then you probably have a Persona account. More specifically, if you have ever stored that earned open badge in Mozilla’s Backpack, then you have a Persona account since Backpack requires users to have a Persona account. It is the authentication service that powers Backpack. Which makes me wonder how Mozilla’s retreat from Persona (the reasons frankly outlined in a Mozilla wiki page and an even more frank Hacker News conversation) may affect Backpack and, by extension, Open Badges.

Not that Open Badges per se needs Mozilla’s Backpack or Persona to work. The entire Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) is open source and can be rolled out by anyone. But Backpack is the most high profile proof of concept implementation of a badge repository that I know of. Mozilla itself refers to Backpack as the “reference implementation of a Backpack and serves as a framework for badge repositories.” So to have a project that serves as a framework for other “backpack” like projects potentially undergo a change to something so fundamental to its purpose – as identity management is to badges – feels significant.

It may not be. I’m new to this Badges game and am just getting up to speed on the infrastructure for an internal sandbox project we are doing here at BCcampus. But in my research around backpack-like providers, I’m not finding much. And the idea of federated backpacks still seems nascent. I am not seeing a lot of open backpack projects similar to Mozilla’s Backpack, although the release earlier this week of BadgeKit might help accelerate the proliferation of backpacks and we may see the federated backpack approach take off. Federated backpacks have been called the holy grail of open badges where distributed backpacks hosted in multiple locations by multiple organizations could connect & share badge information. But in order for that to happen, those backpacks have to exist. Organizations and groups have to commit to hosting backpacks of their own (and indeed there has been a call for more open backpacks by the Open Badges community). There are people like Peter Rawsthorne who believe that, in order for those other open backpacks to flourish and for the federated backpack idea to gain traction, Mozilla may want to consider getting out of hosting a backpack altogether:

I believe the day when Mozilla could sever its responsibility from hosting an OBI instance is the beginning of when the OBI could truly be released into the public domain.This is also the day when other instances of the OBI are up and running and all these instances openly exchange information about the badges they contain. They become a federation of Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) instances; or in other words, the federated backpack. This would also mean that Mozilla would no longer have to host an OBI instance and could focus more deeply on making the OBI code base rock solid and continue advocating for an open metadata standard for the digital badge.

Maybe Mozilla Backpack will transition to another authentication service, or maybe we are seeing the start of Peter’s vision happen and Mozilla begins to pull back from hosted services like Backpack. After all, the proof of concept has been done and it works. Or maybe Mozilla Backpack will continue to use some sort of scaled down, community driven Persona service, although with the number of identity management systems and schemes in existence already it is hard to see where the driver for another is coming from.

All in all, the transition of Persona to “community ownership” feels a bit like a Hail Mary pass. If those who have the most invested in the system (Mozilla) are backing away, then it is hard to see who might step up to fill the development shoes without there being a real, compelling need by someone for the service. It feels like Persona is faltering, and that leaves me wondering about the future of the flagship of digital badge repositories, Backpack.

 

Time to add some nuance to the phrase "screen time"

This post is borne out of the occasional frustrating conversations I’ve had with other parents at my kids school.

I am part of the PAC at our elementary (k-5) school, and we have just begun talking about adding WiFi to our school as a number of teachers want to use more technology in the classroom. But there is resistance among some parents about technology use in schools, and often this hesitancy is hidden behind the coded phrase “screen time”.

You see, “screen time” is bad. “Screen time” is why they don’t want technology in the classroom. Too much “screen time”. Battles with kids at home about “screen time”. The evil “screen time”.

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone use the phrase ‘screen time” and mean it in a positive way.

But what does that phrase really mean? What is hiding behind the words? It’s a question I am beginning to ask more and more when people brush aside the entire spectrum of technology use with the generic “too much screen time” argument. Well, what do you mean by “screen time”?

Do you mean “too much reading books”? Because that happens on a screen. When is the last time you told your kid to stop reading a book?

Or do you mean “too much making music”? Because in our house (and in many other places) making music is just as likely to occur using a screen with a physical keyboard hooked up to a computer as it is with a guitar. The screen is an important piece in the music making arsenal in our house.

Or do you mean “too many YouTube videos”? Well, in the past 2 weeks my kids have watched their fair share of YouTube videos, including a number of music & cat videos. But they have also watched videos on how to do arts & crafts projects like create stuff on a rainbow loom and draw bat wings (my son is currently a bit obsessed with bats thanks to recently reading the Kenneth Opel SilverWing series). My son has also watched soccer videos to pick up some new skills for his upcoming camp. And my daughter loves watching Mythbusters clips, learning to debunk popular myths and develop some critical thinking skills.

My son learning how to use the rainbow loom via YouTube videos created by other kids

Or do you mean “too much learning about the world”? One of my sons favorite activities on the screen is to cruise the world in Google Earth. Especially Japan. He has begun to use Google Streetview to get a better understanding of what life in a Japanese city might be like. Today he was virtually flying through the Grand Canyon as his grandfather is currently in Arizona.

Or do you mean “too much game playing”? Admittedly, we play a lot of games in our house in front of screens. My son plays Minecraft. He loves building. When he was interested in Kung Fu, he built a dojo in Minecraft. When we read that Silverwing series I mentioned earlier, he built locations from the book in Minecraft, including his interpretation of the home base of the bats, a place called Tree Haven. It was the biggest tree on the landscape. He said it was also useful as a wayfinding device. He could fly away from his island and could always find his way back, all he had to do was look for the biggest tree on the horizon.

For him, building in Minecraft is an extension of what he is curious about in his life. He reads or sees something, then he builds. And in the process, he gains a better understanding of what it was that he read or saw. He also does this with Lego, but Minecraft is what he loves building in.

I play World of Warcraft with my kids (and they only play when I am there with them). We work together as a team in the virtual world to solve complex quests. We have fun – as a family – solving problems and supporting each other. How is this worse than sitting down as a family on a Friday night and playing Rummoli at the kitchen table (which we also do)? Simply because there is a screen involved? We’re spending time together as a family.

I loved that both kids felt “famous” when they had leveled up enough that their characters become visible in the WoW community.

WoWWho cares that there are screens? In fact, through our participation in the virtual world of WoW, I am able to pass on valuable lessons in digital literacy and participating in virtual communities – what to look out for, who to trust, how to interact with other characters and remind them there are real people at the other end of those avatars. And be prepared to deal with jerks I wish my kids teachers would be doing the same. Modelling for my kids what it is like to participate in a virtual community, showing my kids how to behave in a discussion forum, what appropriate commenting is, and how to learn from the network. But I digress….

One final point about games and kids. Kids are supposed to play games. It is what being a kid is about. I sometimes think that, as parents, we are much too demanding on our kids time and ensuring that everything they does has some higher & grander purpose. It doesn’t. Kids should be allowed to waste time. That is what being a kid is all about. Sometimes play can just be fun or mindless or silly or diverting. There is nothing wrong with that.

What about the argument that screens make you unhealthy? Well, this comes down to balance (as really, most of this post comes down to balance). My son plays soccer, my daughter dances. As a family we ride bikes as our main form of transportation. There is a trampoline in the back yard. So, we have no shortage of physical exercise opportunities.

In addition, my daughter has a FitBit and spends her days working towards the goal of 10,000 steps. She often checks her screen to see how she is doing. It keeps her motivated. My daughter and I also dance together with the Wii – in front of a big screen in our living room.

My daughter and I getting our heart rate up.

Or maybe you mean “too much expressing yourself artistically”? My son has taken his passion for bats and those previously mentioned Kenneth Opel books and is using Word to write his own sequel to the series because he was unhappy with how the books ended and left him hanging. He is just learning to spell, and the auto spell check in Word underlines misspelled words and helps him see where his mistakes are. Do I stop this because he is doing on a screen? How is it different than if he was doing this on paper with a pencil? Would I stop him from writing a book because he is spending too much time with a pencil and paper?

Or my daughter, who is learning to draw and do art on a tablet. Why is that worse than doing it on paper with a pencil (which she does as well)? In fact, both my kids float from screen to “real life” as if the distinction is meaningless. Because it is.

Or maybe you mean “too much time with their friends”? Well, my kids have virtual email pen pals. Their virtual pen pals have lost grandparents, won sports competitions, they have shared artwork and learned what life is like in their part of the world. In short, my kids are learning to have empathy for people they have never met. Again, they are learning there are real people at the other end of the keyboard. How is this different than if it were paper letters? Why is this worse simply because it involves a screen?

So, I think it is time to banish the term “screen time” when we have conversations about the role of technology in our lives. In my experience, it is often used as a wet blanket; a catch-all designed to stop important conversations before they have a chance to happen. It is time for us to begin to have a more nuanced conversation about what that term means, and unpack the meaning hiding behind the term. What do people really mean when they say they are worried about “screen time” in schools? Because in the end, I don’t think it is really the screens people are worried about. It is how those screens are used. And that is a conversation we cannot have until we move past “screen time” and begin to talk about specifics.

 

How BCcampus PressBooks is different than PressBooks.com

I met with Dr. Tony Bates a few weeks back to talk about open textbook publishing. Tony is looking to self-publish an open textbook and was looking for some advice on how to technically go about publishing.

I mentioned to him that we are using PressBooks as our primary publishing platform and began to explain to him a few of the differences between our version of PressBooks and the hosted version of PressBooks.com as we have been customizing the WordPress plugin quite a bit to meet the specific needs of our project and of open textbook development.

First off, when thinking about PressBooks, you have 2 options, much like with it’s parent project WordPress. There is PressBooks.com, which is the hosted version of the software. Sign up for an account and you can start writing your book in a few minutes with a minimum of technical fuss. While you can create books for free on PressBooks.com, when you output the final PDF or ePub version, there is some PressBooks.com branding and watermarking, as you can see here in this small book I created at PressBooks.com.

And then there is the open source PressBooks plugin. Use this plugin on a vanilla install of WordPress and you have an (almost) fully functioning version of PressBooks.com. I say almost because there is a dependency that costs money (if you are an academic institution – there is a free license for Prince that inserts a Prince logo into the output) . In order to output PDF versions of your book, you will (if you are an institution) need to purchase and install a tool called Prince XML to do the output rendering into PDF format. The developers of the PressBooks plugin felt that this was a better PDF output engine than some open source alternatives to output PDF documents. And it is certainly a robust product that does a great job of turning your PressBooks powered WordPress site into a PDF document suitable for print or digital distribution. But the institutional licensing cost might be a limitation for those interested in fully open source digital publishing, and a barrier for others who wish to use the open source plugin.

That said, there is no additional charge for the ePub rendering engine in PressBooks and really, when we talk about digital publishing, ePub is the format we are really interested in. Add in that you get a very nicely formatted website version of the book (really a tricked out WordPress theme that strips away a lot of the WordPress widgets and extras and puts the focus on readability) and you have a very functional “publishing” platform for most books.

However, our needs are a bit specific as we are publishing open textbooks and those have some special needs. So, along the way we (well, very little me, a lot BCcampus developer Brad Payne) have been making modifications and adding plugins to make PressBooks work for us for the BC Open Textbook project.

Recently, we have begun pulling all of these changes together and are working on developing a second plugin that is open textbook specific. This plugin is not a replacement of the PressBooks plugin, but would work with the PressBooks plugin and hopefully make it a bit easier for someone who wants to mimic our setup do so locally (and as an aside, my head is swimming these days of what that might mean & if we should work towards getting to a distro where we could distribute not only a BCcampus-like textbook PressBooks plugin, but also an entire collection of textbooks made in PressBooks, ready to be installed locally at an institution. A repository and editing tool completely seeded with 40 open textbooks ready to be customized and edited with PressBooks. But that is still in the early thinking stages.

So, what have we been doing to our local version of PressBooks that makes it different than PressBooks.com. Specifically, here are the changes we have made, and the plugins we are using.

Plugins

  • The Creative Commons Configurator, which adds a CC license to the bottom of each webpage in the HTML version of the book and adds in CC metadata to each webpage so that it can be correctly indexed by search engines as CC content (it also enables tools like OpenAttribute to work). Brad has actually been working on customizing this plugin to allow us to input & display information when the content is a derivative and based on someone elses work.
  • Relevansi, a search engine plugin for the website version of the book, reducing the need to generate a traditional index.
  • LaTex for WordPress allows us to use this popular science & math markup language Actually, not what we are using anymore. We’re using a modified version of WP Latex, which has been committed to PressBooks core
  • MCE Table Buttons to add tables because, you know, textbooks have tables.
  • Brad also built another MCE plugin called MCE Textbook Buttons which adds 3 new buttons to the TinyMCE toolbar that create styled fields for Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, and Exercises. These buttons add some visual styling and create coloured boxes for al the different output types. There isn’t any special metadata associated with the boxes that the buttons create that might define them as Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, etc. It is simply a visual style difference.

Code Changes

  • We’ve altered the theme to flips the table of contents and description fields on the book homepage so that the ToC appears above the description. For most users of the book (students) the ToC will be more important than the description as they will have probably be sent directly to the site by their instructor.
  • Added in the Relevansi search box. (Brad noted that Relevansi is still not fully incorporated into the new plugin. The search box is there, but the Relevansi plugin integration is still being worked on).
  • We’ve disabled comments. This is a tough one, and one we had to make a decision about based on logistics. Ideally, these books would be used by students. Faculty using the book would send them to the book. But these books have no instructor “owner” per se. There is no subject matter expert ready to respond to potential questions a student may have about the content they are reading. In other words, there is no one watching the comment shop. So, you can imagine a scenario where a student comes to a page, has a question about the content, posts their question in the comment field and then…..gets no response because no one see their question. Discouraging and not very useful. So, we’ve disabled comments on the site. But this is one that we may fire up again in the future. I just don’t know if the potential benefit is worth the potential risk just yet. If there was a dedicated instructor monitoring the resource, then great. But I worry about the instructor who uses the book getting slammed by their student for not answering their question because they didn’t even know that the student asked the question.
  • Added a footer line to the PDF and ePub outputs that says “This book is available for free from open.bccampus.ca” This is a tip I picked up from David Harris & the OpenStax project as a way to combat the selling of the textbook by third parties. Not that it is wrong to sell the books released with a full CC-BY license, but if someone does buy the book, they should know that there is and always will be a free version of that book available from the open site. It’s not perfect and discovery would happen after the fact, but maybe someone who buys the book might use the information to contact us and tell us that someone is selling copies of the book so at least we know.
  • In the admin area, we’ve also changed the Feedback link that floats to the right of the admin screen to send us at the project a message asking for help. In vanilla PB the Feedback remarks go to PB.

There are also a number of customizations that Brad has made that have been contributed back to the PB project, including Brad’s import engine, which imports Word, ODT and ePub files into PressBooks. This is our preferred method of changing the plugin – contribute back bits to PressBooks first and let the project decide if they want to merge the code into vanilla PressBooks. But there are some bits that might be of no interest to the PB developers that we would like to have, hence our own custom development.

Our goal is to have the infrastructure in place to begin recruiting other developers to participate in the development of more open textbook specific features by April. We have a couple of events happening, including the Open Textbook Summit and the annual BCNet conference where we want to talk in more detail about the project and our changes to PB. So, if you have some WP chops and are looking for an open source open ed project, consider yourself invited to come & contribute. Especially if you have some knowledge of ePub3 as getting ePub3 output is a big goal in the near future (see https://github.com/unit29868/pressbooks)

Here are a few screenshots of the differences.

Example of the Key Takeaway & Exercises callout boxes

 

What our book homepage looks like. Slightly different than vanilla PB in that it flips the Book Description with the Table of Contents at the bottom of the page. It also removes the default PB branding.

 

Example of a book search results page from the Relevansi search engine. Notice the search box in the top right, which we have added to each book.

 

WordPress: let a thousand textbooks bloom (well, hopefully)

Update: So, after testing this out, turns out it isn’t as simple as I first thought. See the update note below. If you are the person from Ryerson who did this, I’d love it if you left a comment about what happened when you imported the book.

A couple hours ago I finished uploading a copy of a Media Studies open textbook to our open textbook collection. The book was originally created as a WordPress site by the University of Otago textbook hack project I’ve written about before. A few week ago, Erika Pearson sent me a WordPress backup file of the textbook they have created. I imported that file into our PressBooks collection and, earlier today sent out a tweet saying I had just finished adding the file to our collection.

Because PressBooks is WordPress based, importing the WordPress site created by Erica’s crew was dead easy. It imported into PressBooks with a minimum of fuss – just a bit of structural reformatting to fit the PressBooks book paradigm.

Now, along with our version of the textbook, I also try to make available as many remixable file formats as I can. In this case, I also released the WXR file, which is the WordPress backup file.

Well, here it is, not even 3 hours after I sent out that original tweet saying that we have made the book available when I started getting some pingback messages.

pingbackI was curious as to what was pinging the Media Studies book back, so I followed the links and discovered that someone at Ryerson in Ontario has downloaded a copy of the WordPress backup file and installed it locally on a WordPress instance at Ryerson.

Now this kind of blows my mind in a most  awesome way. First, with very little fuss or friction, a CC licensed book has made it’s way from New Zealand, to BC to Ontario because the original was built in WordPress. Making the backup file available made it possible for someone to take the file and with very little work, have a copy of the book working on their own site, ready to be modified.

Looking at the Ryerson site, it looks like the person who installed it is just testing (the server url begins with test), but it blows me away that a resource can proliferate that quickly and with that little effort. I credit WordPress.

And this is really one of the reasons why I love using a tool that, at the core, is WordPress for this project. As a publishing platform, WordPress is now so common that this kind of fast proliferation of openly licensed content can occur. Combined with the type of speed and reach you get with social media and you have something that is lightweight, fast and easy to use.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about lightweight means of sharing the content we are creating, and the more I think about it, the more I see WordPress – the platform – as such a key piece to the sustainability of these textbooks. Once you get the book completed in PressBooks/WordPress, it becomes fairly trivial to install the “textbook” on any WordPress platform. Don’t know if you have ever tried reusing SCORM content, or even LMS content, but I can tell you from experience that it is not a trivial task.

Update 4 hours later: I’m eating crow. Until this came up today, I had been working on the untested assumption that the PressBooks to WordPress backup/restore process would work. But I had never actually tried to restore a PressBooks backup into vanilla WordPress. Seeing this example today, I thought it might have confirmed my untested hunch and got excited and fired off the original blog post. But this evening when I went to actually test it for myself, I went back and tried to install the PressBooks backup into a clean vanilla WordPress install and…well…the long and short is that it’s not working. I’m getting all kinds of import errors. So, yeah. Needs some work to make this happen in the way I hope it would happen. But this next section still remains true…

Something that is easy to copy makes it more likely that it will be copied. And if it is copied, it has more chances of living beyond it’s original life. A thousand version of something seems to me to be the ultimate sustainability plan for any piece of content.

 

A good use of video

I stumbled across a number of Biology video resources via the iBiology site earlier today and took a minute to watch a few shorter clips in the collection and came across this one. Not only does it prove that octopus are pretty amazing creatures, but I also thought it was a decent example of how video can be used effectively in a lesson. Here’s why I like it. But first, the video:

So, why is this a good use of video? Well, before I get into that, I should say that the part of the video I want to focus on is the video within the video. So, even though this is essentially a video lecture, it is the way the instructor uses video within that lecture to illustrate something that might otherwise be difficult to explain that I find particularly well done.

First, it shows a field scene – something that would be very difficult to otherwise explain in words and static images. Using video makes the learner feel like they are right there in a place that they might otherwise not ever see. In this case, the bottom of the ocean. Effective video takes learners to places (or times) they might not otherwise be able to go to.

The dramatic effect of the octopus changing from camouflaged to visible happens virtually instantaneously, and that instantaneous moment simply would not carry the same weight if the instructor tried to talk about it or show a series of photos. It is unexpected. It piques the learners interest. Notice how the instructor builds to that moment in his lead up as well, setting the scene of the shot as a rather boring underwater scene. His language signals that something is going to happen that will soon transform that boring underwater scene. He is building curiosity through his language, and when the moment of unexpected transformation happens, you are engaged.

Notice, too, how the instructor is not simply playing video and having students watch it, but is actively interacting with the video and explaining what is happening while it is happening. At a number of places, he is pointing and drawing the learners attention to details in the video as it happens. For example, at :27 seconds, he points to the screen and says “now watch here”, making sure that the attention of the learner is in the right place to catch the key concept he is trying to explain

Then, after the video has been played in forward at full speed, he plays the video at half speed backward, giving you a completely new perspective of the phenomenon the student just witnessed. Again, at :40 seconds in, he makes sure to point out what he wants the learner to see “watch the ring form around this eye”.

He then pauses the video and brings up a series of stills to further explain the concepts, adding a text overlay to the video with a bullet list of keywords explaining what a hi-fidelity match would be. This further underscores what he is saying. And then in his summary he augments the video on the screen further with a few more points underscoring the key concepts of the short video. Key here is that he includes question prompts to spur deeper thinking for the students and spark some curiosity about the concepts introduced in the short lesson. There is a slight problem in that the juxtaposition of the final shot overlay’s the teacher on top of the text, obscuring some of the text, but it’s a small quibble.

So, even though this is a video lecture, I think it is a well done bit of lecturing based around a compelling video. The instructor is naturally engaged and dynamic and the presentation is snappy. Having the instructor on screen humanizes the lesson and allows him to carry out the kinds of interaction with the video that make the video clip pedagogically strong, like directing attention to key moments in the clip. There is a lot packed into this 2 minute video and if I was working with faculty in a traditional f2f classroom, this clip would probably make its way into my training arsenal as an example of how to effectively use video in a lesson.