Week in Review: Week 20/21

Open Textbook Summit 2014 Day 1

Brad getting excited for next weeks Open Textbook Summit. CC-BY BCcampus

Covering the past 2 weeks.

  • Prep for next weeks OT Summit and authors thank you event. We have over 150 people coming for the Summit and another 70+ to the authors thank you event. Super happy with these numbers as this is the first year that we have run the Summit more like a conference with session proposals. It is also the first year that we have charged a registration fee for the event, and I was very concerned that would hurt our numbers. But we’ve surpassed last years numbers and I expect we will still have more once the final numbers are collected.
  • Met with the Noba project, an open textbook Psychology project. Noba co-sponsored the testbank sprint last summer and now have a copy of the textbank for faculty who use their open textbook. We’ve both been fighting with Respondus trying to use it to make our testbanks. It;s a beast. If anyone knows of a better tool to make test question pools for numerous LMS, please let me know. I am dying to find an alternative that will make multiple testbanks for multiple LMS’s from a single source.
  • Completed a first draft of an open textbook sustainability plan and a draft three year tactical plan for open textbooks & circulated to a few BCcampus team members for feedback.
  • Working on a video project with Rajiv. My editing skills are rusty and I hope I can pull this off in time for the OT Summit cause his idea is very funny and I want to do it justice.
  • Saw a noticeable upswing in number of faculty review requests this week, which is fantastic. We are always looking for faculty to review open textbooks, and it looks like a few BC faculty are adding an open textbook to their summer reading list.
  • Met with our Faculty Fellows. They are going to be busy over the next few weeks at various events around BC. We are planning to meet f2f with Beck Pitt from the OER Research Hub next week in Vancouver to start working on a report with the findings and recommendations from our open textbook faculty survey that wrapped up this spring. I am hoping we will be able to release this report this summer.
  • Met with Nicole Allen from SPARC last week. Nicole and SPARC were involved in organizing OpenEd in Washington last year, and she had some good tips for us as we continue planning OpenEd 2015 in Vancouver this fall.
  • Mucking around with embedding interactive Excel spreadsheets in Pressbooks. Also had some PB frustration tracking down more security headaches. This one actual affected an author who lost a few hours of writing after he was inadvertently locked out of PB. Took the better part of a morning figuring out what happened and seeing if we could recover his stuff.
  • Updating & reconciling OTB budget.
  • Was Victoria Day in Canada last weekend and I took some extra time around the weekend to hang out with family and friends, do some biking & bbq’ing.

We destroy that which we love the most

Note: I wrote this in September of 2014 when the Minecraft sale to Microsoft was first announced. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it then. But I came across it today in my drafts and felt the need to hit publish despite it being old news and not at all about edtech, or open education.

It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.

It was with a deep sense of sadness that I read Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal blog post about why he is leaving Mojang and the game he created, Minecraft.

Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion dollars, a move that has divided the Minecraft community. But after reading Notch’s post, the real conversation should be not about the sale, but about the blurred lines the internet creates between the private and public lives.

I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me.

As someone who is on the fringes of gaming, I know a little about the public perception of Minecraft and, more generally, of Notch as folk hero; someone and something that succeed from the margins, outside the established way of doing things. And, on occasion, someone who has thumbed their nose at “the establishment” for the way it was being done

Minecraft, from the start, was different than most games. It was open ended, full of possibilities, and it quickly became something that burst well beyond the gaming community to capture the interest of the general public. Even if you are not a gamer, chances are you have heard of Minecreaft. Which is why it is worth $2.5 billion dollars to Microsoft. It has transcended the gaming sub-culture and moved mainstream.

But this post isn’t about the business deal or the future of Minecraft (although interesting and an important discussion likely happening all over the web right now). But instead this post is about the culture of the internet, personal privacy and the fuzzy boundaries between public life and private life.

I’m also aware a lot of you were using me as a symbol of some perceived struggle. I’m not. I’m a person, and I’m right there struggling with you.

You can feel the conflict in Notch. Rarely have I read something so personal, honest and human that captures the struggle that, quite frankly, anyone who engages with social media at any level could have thrust upon us at a moments notice.

Reading Notch’s post, you can feel the conflict of having to be true to yourself, of having to live up to the public expectations of what “the audience” wants you to be. Notch had crossed this line between being a basement developer hacking away at code for fun, to suddenly having the thunderous weight of unachievable expectations thrust upon him. The public perception of the person and the private person were colliding.

I can relate to this as we all struggle, we are full of contradictions and are all trying hard to do the right thing. We get hurt by comments made about us by people who don’t know us about things that are often out of our control.

I don’t try to change the world. Minecraft certainly became a huge hit, and people are telling me it’s changed games. I never meant for it to do either.

As I said, I am on the fringes of the gaming community. But I do play Minecraft a lot with my son. I know of Notch because I have played the game. I feel I have a sense of who he is because of the game that he created. The reason why I felt this connection to the person is because I have a deep belief that technology is not neutral. I believe that the tools we create are imbued with the values and beliefs of those who create them. The way software works says something about the people who make it, whether that is conscious or not. And because I have this belief about the way our tools are developed, it was easy for me to transfer what I saw in the game to the person who created the game.

There are bits and pieces of Minecraft that made me think that I knew something of the developer and their values. The choice of music, for example. If you play Minecraft, you’ll notice the soundtrack. Subtle, ambient, gentle, peaceful. The decision to have that kind of music in the game signaled to me that the person who developed this game had a certain type of personality. It felt gentle. It felt kind. Even the scary bits were not that scary.

Maybe that transference is wrong, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think that there is a lot in Minecraft that is a reflection of its creator, just like there is a lot in other software that is a reflection of their creators. Software is designed by people and, consciously or unconsciously, the values, experiences, perceptions and beliefs of those people influence the way the software is designed.

You always had this sense that Notch was uneasy with being in the public. A few weeks ago my son and I watched the Minecraft documentary and, even in the doc, you got the sense that Notch truly felt like an outsider in this whole crazy world that was beginning to gather around him. He was no longer just this coder working on a game in his spare time. He was now the figurehead; the symbol, and you could sense the unease he had with this position. His happy little side project became something else. It became a business with Notch no longer as a developer, but as a figurehead with Mojang basking in the glow of the public perception of Notch.

And then the internet got it’s hate on. This summer, Notch, the person, bore the brunt of some corporate decisions at Mojang. The community came down hard on him. Hard enough that he has finally said “screw this, get me out“. And along came Microsoft.

All this is a long prelude to the real issue at play here. Not whether Notch somehow “sold out” (which, after reading his post, I don’t think he did), or what will happen to Minecraft now that Microsoft owns it (which is an interesting question). But the conversation to be had here is where do we draw the line between the private person and public personality?  How do we define “celebrity” in this internet age when any one of us can become a celebrity at a moments notice? Where being a “celebrity” means having every word you write scrutinized to the nth degree by “the audience”? Where the pressure of being someone in public causes such cognitive dissonance in a person that they begin to shut down and withdraw when the conversation needs their voice more than ever?

What role did we, “the audience” have to play in the growing disillusionment of Notch and, ultimately, his departure from Mojang and the sale of Microsoft? Because it is clear that the sale was not to make money – it was to escape. Escape us.

If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

This is 20 minutes long. It was linked to from Notch’s post and it is a really well done mini-doc on the new phenomenon of internet celebrity, and the blurring of the lines between public and private life. It’s provocative and has some sharp analysis. Well worth the watch, even if you are not involved with the game community as it speaks to this new notion of celebrity in our culture. NSFW.

To Notch, a heartfelt thank you for Minecraft.


Embedding Interactive Excel Spreadsheets in WordPress using OneDrive

One of the projects we are funding is the development of a number of interactive Excel documents to support an open finance textbook in our collection. These types of projects are fun to do, and they enhance an existing resource by adding interactivity to the book. This makes the book more attractive for adoption by faculty.

The author has been developing a number of interactive charts using Excel. The idea being, you change a value and the chart changes. Excel is the software of choice in business, so it makes sense to develop these activities in Excel. Now, there is nothing wrong with having students download the spreadsheets and work on them on their own computer. But the author is  looking for a way to try to enable the interactivity to happen within the browser.

After a bit of digging around I discovered that Microsoft OneDrive has the ability to embed Office documents within a webpage. The instructions on how to embed content  also say that, “readers can sort, filter, and calculate data, right there in your post”. Sounds like the ticket to me.

So, I uploaded one of the interactive Excel spreadsheets the author sent me to OneDrive, followed the embed instructions and voila…

…an interactive Excel spreadsheet embedded into a post.

I tested this in Chrome, Firefox and IE and it seems to work. Change a value in the yellow column and the chart below it updates. The other columns stay locked, which is how the faculty coded them. So, the behaviour of the sheet seems to be intact.

The embedded interface also gives students the option to download a copy of the original file (so they can retain and work on it in Excel on their desktop, if they choose), or open up the document within Excel on the web using the icons in the bottom right of the embed window.


However, while it works well in the browser, the embedded spreadsheet doesn’t give me much love on my Nexus tablet or Android phone, and  the Pressbooks output formats (ePub, PDF and mobi) don’t like the embed code much, leaving big blank spaces in those outputs. So, there is still that hurdle to cross to find an elegant way to make those work. But so far, I’m pretty happy to have found this as it gives students the option to interact with the data in real time on the website version of the book, or download and keep the interactive Excel spreadsheet. All while allowing faculty to work in a tool that they feel comfortable with.


Correcting Wikipedia history on educational radio in Canada

Valerie Irvine and Irwin DeVries are working on a project documenting the history of open education in Canada. If you have run into Irwin in the last few months, chances are you’ve seen him lugging around some video equipment and maybe even tapping you on the shoulder to get a clip on the role you have played in the history of open education and edtech in Canada.

One of the areas where I am hoping to contribute to the project is around the role of educational radio in Canada. While radio courses have a very long and deep history, I find they often get forgotten when the history of edtech and open education comes up.

My personal perspective isn’t historically deep, considering the roots of radio education stretch back to the 20’s in Canada. I only goes back 20 years to the work I did in the mid 90’s at CKMO radio, a campus/community radio station located at Camosun College in Victoria BC. By the time I began working on radio courses there, educational radio was at the end of its run as a robust delivery platform for open courses. Funding for one of the pillars of educational radio stations in Canada, CJRT in Toronto, had just been pulled by the then Conservative government in Ontario, and CKUA in Edmonton was also under severe financial strain.*

However, as shallow as my perspective may be, I know when something doesn’t look quite right, like the Wikipedia article on the Open College  in Toronto (link leads to old version of the page). When I looked at the article this morning, the first sentence popped out at me:

onlyThat is a pretty bold statement considering that, even with my short term 20 year horizon to draw on, I can name at least 2 other radio-based university-credit distance education providers in CKUA in Edmonton and CKMO in Victoria. Both offered open courses on the air and both were accredited; CKUA through Athabasca University and CKMO through Camosun College. CKUA in Edmonton is often credited with being the first radio station to program educational content, starting in 1927.

So, I hit edit and made a change to Wikipedia to fix what, I think, is an inaccurate statement. The first line of the article now reads:

onlyfixNow when people read about the history of Open College, they will see that they were not the only ones doing this. As important as Open College was, there were others doing formal radio based educational programming in Canada.

Update: Grant Potter, also lover of radio and quick on the draw with finding cool stuff on the web, shared this video about the early history of CKUA.

*An aside: CKUA and Athabasca offered up one of the finest explorations of music I’ve ever heard with the fantastic radio course Ragtime to Rolling Stones which, if you listened to it on CKUA in the early 90’s was free to hear. But if you try to access it via the web today….well.)


Week 19 In Review

I like sharing some personal stuff about my week in the reviews. Normally, I do it at the end of the post. But this week’s overriding memory is a personal one. My 8 year old son, after living with an egg allergy for his entire life, was given the green light to eat eggs by our allergist after a successful oral challenge.

The immense impact of this on our family is difficult to fully explain as we have lived with dietary limitations for his entire life. For the first 3 years, his total avoidance allergy list was all nuts, eggs, soy, dairy and wheat. Slowly, over the years this list has been reduced to where it is now just nuts and dairy. This development means a pretty massive change for our family, and will likely go down as our families biggest collective memory of 2015.

Onto work stuff.

I was invited by Colin Madland at TRU-OL to participate in their annual Open Learning faculty development workshop. TRU is a fantastic supporter of the open textbook project, and open education in general. I presented on the open textbook project with a few people at TRU who are involved in the project, Rajiv Jhangiani (who gave one of the clearest explanations on the basics of cricket that I have ever heard using a set of flight beer glasses), John Belshaw (who authored the new Canadian History textbook in our collection), and TRU librarian Brenda Smith (who has been involved with the BC-OER librarians group). I also facilitated a couple of f2f workshops on finding and using OER. Slides from my plenary presentation, my workshop, and the workshop outline.

While at TRU, I also met with Irwin DeVries and the instructional design team at TRU-OL on how they can use open textbooks in their course development and redesign courses around open textbooks. I also met with Val Peachy, who is the Director for Program Delivery at TRU-OL. Also met with another open textbook adapting author at TRU Bill Little (Intro to Sociology) to do a bit of a f2f Pressbooks overview with him. Spent some time with Nancy White &, of course, hung out with Brian. Also good to see Grant Potter and Jason Toal.

OpenEd 2015 proposal reviews. Coordinated an external review panel of BC post-sec folks to evaluate OpenEd 2015 proposals. We had a quick turnaround time as proposal acceptances are going out this week. Thank you to the group of you who helped with the proposal evaluations. There are just shy of 150 proposals for OpenEd this fall – a phenomenal response.

Other OpenEd 2015 work: put together outline of possible roles for BC (and especially Vancouver based( higher ed folks as I continue to work towards getting a local organizing committee together for the event.

Spent a day working on both an open textbook sustainability plan, and an open textbook tactical plan for the next year. This summer we will be wrapping up the creation phase and will have met the official goals of the project (textbooks that align with the top 40 academic subject areas in BC and 20 textbooks for skills and trades training) and now need to start looking towards what is next for the project. These 2 documents are my big rock projects right now.

Attended a webinar from John Hilton III about efficacy of open textbooks. Prompted a blog post from me.

We’re working on a self-serve stand alone instance of Pressbooks for BC faculty. The idea behind this instance is that faculty (or anyone with a BC post-sec institutional account) can sign up for their own Pressbooks site and use it to create a textbook. These books won’t be added to the curated collection at open.bccampus.ca, but will be connected with the larger collection in the sense that faculty who sign up for an account can create a copy of any book in our collection and use that as a starting point for their own textbook. This is a way to support faculty who have the technical skills and knowledge of open licensing a venue to D.I.Y. an open textbook. I’ve got the keys from Brad this week and have been playing with it in preparation for a limited summer launch.

Working with Lumen and University of Minnesota on textbook conversion program. We are trying to coordinate our efforts on converting existing open textbooks in the commons into our common Pressbooks platform. First step was a list of what we are all working on in terms of conversion projects and we got that done last week. Next step – how to best share these resources so we don’t duplicate efforts.

Ministry meeting to give them an update on our activities.

Registered for ETUG at SFU in June.

The OT Summit is just a few weeks away. Registration closes May 25.

Was involved in a few emails with folks around rebooting Creative Commons Canada.

We added a number of books to the collection last week as the 20 skills and trades training books continue to roll off the shelves. Notably Introduction to Tourism and Hospitality in BC, and an ABE English textbook and accompanying reader.

One more personal note. Celebrated not only Mothers Day this weekend, but 12 wonderful years of being married to my wife, Dana.

Image credit: Happy Face by abhijith CC-BY-NC-SA


Effectiveness of Open Educational Resources (with update)


Much of this post has been cross-posted at the open.bccampus.ca website, but I wanted to repeat it here because I think that the work that John Hilton III and others are doing at the Open Education Group is important work for the entire OpenEd community. It helps build the case that open resources are viable resources for educators who are concerned about the efficacy of their teaching resources which, as the recent Babson survey tells us, is the most important quality faculty look for when choosing their resources: proven efficacy (a problematic point which I’ve talked about before).

John Hilton III is one of the leading researchers in the area of efficacy of open educational resources (which includes open textbooks). Recently, John has been gathering empirical research on the efficacy of open educational resources compared to traditional publishers resources and publishing the studies at the Open Education Group website. The Right to Research Coalition sponsored a webinar with John where he presented some of the findings comparing the use of open resources with closed resources.

Here are the slides from the presentation, and the archive of his webcast is below.

The “big picture” takeaway from John’s presentation came in a slide he shared early on (see above). The aggregate result of eight different studies he examined shows that 85% of students who use free open resources in a class do as well or slightly better than students using traditional publishers textbooks. (updated May 14, 2015: John left the following comment about this post over at the open.bccampus.ca site that reads “Thanks for this post – one quick clarification. The “50-35-15? breakdown in the image is actually about student and teacher’s perceptions of OER. That is about 50% say the OER they have used is as good as traditional texts, 35% say it’s better, 15% say it’s worse. 10 different academic studies have focused on whether students who use OER do better or worse than their peers using traditional resources have largely found no significant differences. See http://openedgroup.org/review for more details.” So, the empirical evidence from 10 research studies actually shows an even more compelling argument).

Students performing as well or even slightly better while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in textbook costs is an important finding. However, a John notes, this is just eight studies and there needs to be more research done to be able to see if this result can be replicated in other cases. But still, it does beg the question that if students are doing as well or even slightly better in classes that use free open resources, then how come we still are asking them to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks when the outcomes are the same?

Here is the presentation.



Are you analog or digital?

I left a fairly lengthy response on Tony Bates blog post about an issue he has been experiencing.

Tony used our instance of Pressbooks as the platform for his latest book, Teaching in a Digital Age. Tony noticed that the PDF version of the book had a problem with how the images were rendered. They were not in the correct flow of the text when the conversion from web to PDF happened in Pressbooks.

Pressbooks does the conversion from web to PDF better than most, but this is an issue we have been dealing with as part of our project. Images that are placed in the correct flow of a book in Pressbooks often get moved and pushed around in the PDF version of the book.

I understand the annoyance, but it illustrates beautifully the dichotomy of the borderlands we currently live in, straddling the digital and the analog worlds of publishing.

Here is my response.

Nate hits it on the head – these are the complexities involved in digital publishing as we straddle the world of print with the world of the web (and other digital formats). Digital publishing formats are fluid, and print formats are rigid. By choosing to use a publishing platform that values digital over print (and Pressbooks is designed to favour web over print), you are making a choice to value flexible over rigid.

However, as you have discovered, the two don’t play well. While Pressbooks and the PDF engine does an admirable job of creating an acceptable print ready document, you are still going to end up with having to compromise the layout of the rigid print for the flexible digital.

This is actually the biggest conceptual hurdle that most people moving from print based publishing to digital publishing have to contend with. It is often very disconcerting for those who have designed for the rigid formats of print to make the transition to the fluid world of digital. And they are often disappointed because they have to give up their pixel (or point in the print world) control and surrender to the fluid layouts of digital that put the user, not the publisher, in control of the appearance of the content.

The dilemma I have, as someone who is developing tools that attempt to straddle both worlds, is how can I satisfy the expectations of those who are accustomed and expecting rigid print, while still satisfy those who understand and expect the fluid digital. It is a heck of a challenge and someone is going to end up unhappy in the end, as you are seeing. Your book website looks great and works well. Your PDF (which I consider print, not digital as it enforces a rigid layout vs the digital flexible) is expecting rigid and cannot accommodate the digital flexible flow.

This is at the heart of why I find PDF so frustrating to work with. It appears to be digital, but is really analog hiding in a digital sheep’s clothing.

In the end, the decision is the author as to which compromise they are willing to make. Are they a digital publisher first making an analog version available out of convenience to those who still live in the analog world, in which case the PDF output would be acceptable. Or are they an analog publisher who wants to create rigid layouts (ie PDF and print) first with the web/ePub and digital publishing as the afterthought.


Making WordPress Accessible with FLOE

I’ve installed the FLOE WordPress plugin on this site.  FLOE (Flexible Learning for Open Education) is a project out of the  Inclusive Design Research Centre   at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) in Toronto.

The plugin adds accessibility feature to any WordPress site, and is designed specifically to address the needs of those using WordPress to develop and deliver accessible Open Educational Resources (OER).

If you look at the top right of this site, you should see a box that looks like this:


Click on that and you will see a number of options appear that let you change the display of the site to address some common accessibility issues, such as text size, line spacing and contrast.


Amanda Coolidge (along with our partners at CAPER-BC and Camousn College) has been doing a lot of work on accessibility with the BC Open Textbook project. Recently, this culminated in the addition of some accessibility features to the Pressbooks plugin, developed by our co-op student Ashlee Zhang. The accessibility features developed by Ashlee match some of the work done by FLOE (like increasing font sizes and line spacing).

I first became aware of FLOE in February around the same time that Amanda, Tara and Sue were conducting our accessibility workshops with students. Unbeknownst to us, while we were doing this in BC, there was a similar sprint workshop on accessibility being held concurrently in Ontario. In retrospect, I wish we had been aware of the Ontario event as it would have been a great opportunity to combine forces and collaborate as we work towards the common goal of making OER the most universally accessible resources available to students.

That said,  Amanda has since made contact with the project. Considering that Pressbooks Textbook, our platform, shares the same DNA as WordPress (it is a WordPress plugin), it seems to me that there is a lot of benefit by connecting with the FLOE project and working together on making OER’s as accessible as possible.

As for the plugin itself, I’d appreciate your feedback on how it works. Play around with it and leave a comment. Click “Show Display Preferences” in the top right corner and get started.

If you want to add the plugin to your site, here’s the GitHub repo.



Week 18 Review

  • Attended & presented at BCNet in Vancouver this week (slides). BCNet is a large regional conference aimed at higher ed IT folks. I wasn’t sure how a presentation about open textbooks would go over considering the audience is mostly sys admins, IT helpdesk and CIO types, but a few showed up and seemed to be engaged with the presentation.
  • My attendance at BCNet prompted a blog post that wasn’t a week in review post, but an observation that the new “notice and notice” requirement of the Canadian Copyright Act that kicked into effect in January of this year is a bloody hassle for higher ed to deal with.
  • Also some excellent conversations in the backchannel around lack of diversity on stage at the conference exactly (1 of the 8 keynotes was a woman), and an off colour off the cuff remark made by the first day keynoter about Bruce Jenner. To his credit, he quickly realized how inappropriate his comment was and publicly apologized.
  • Love this random act of YouTube comment karma initiated by Tom Woodward after he stumbled upon a video I made 6 years ago to help show a student in my Masters program how to add a hanging indent to a WordPress blog post.
  • Started coordinating some work with U of Minnesota and Lumen on getting existing open textbook collections that are in the commons (like) into Pressbooks.
  • Work on OpenEd with David on proposals. Also started putting together list of potential roles for local organizing committee. Some of you may be hearing from me soon 🙂
  • On the OpenEd front, had a great lunch with Scott and Brian where I hijacked the convo asking them about the lessons they learned from previous Vancouver OpenEd conferences (2009/2012). Everytime I speak to these two I am again struck by how important they have been, and continue to be, to not only the local BC OpenEd community, but the larger OpenEd community. They have been in this a lot longer than I have and I always benefit from their perspective and advice.
  • A great, simple little initiative coming from  Kwantlen librarian Caroline Daniels. Kwantlen students use a lot of open textbooks, and some do like to order print copies from our print partner SFU just up the road from Kwantlen. Well, the books (while inexpensive) can be costly to ship via standard mail (around $10). There is already an existing courier system between higher ed institutions to facilitate inter-library loans where material can be requested by one library and shipped to another. Caroline contacted a librarian at SFU, who then contacted me about seeing if there was a way to leverage this existing courier service to remove shipping costs for physical versions of the books. Document Solutions at SFU (who do our printing) came on board and it looks like a process is now in place to ship books from SFU to Kwantlen via the inter-library loan system for free. Wonderful initiative from Caroline and Kwantlen to recognize this opportunity and act on it, and to SFU for being willing to facilitate the request.
  • Spoke with Alex Berland about his OER nurse educator project in Bangladesh.
  • Reading this week:
  • According to that stupid app I’m 68. Stupid app.
  • Kids school musical this week. The drama geek in me sure gets a kick out of watching them perform on stage.
What the person sitting behind the choir conductor sees

What the person sitting behind the choir conductor sees. Clint Lalonde