Follow that open educational resource!

This morning I was taking a look at some of the Piwiks website analytics for the Geography open textbook we created 2 years ago as a textbook sprint project. For me, the really interesting data is always the referring website data as that can give you a glimpse of how the content is being used and by who.

The BC Open Textbook Project tracks adoptions of open textbooks with an eye to reporting back student savings. But there is much more value in open resources than just a displacing adoption where a commercial textbook is replaced by an open one. When you create open resources, you may have one specific group in mind, but you often find there are unexpected audiences using your resources.

This is a big value proposition of open resources. Once you make an open resource, it is available for others to use and refer back to. Each open textbook in the BC open textbook collection contributes to improving the knowledge available on the open web.

This is one of the major reasons I love open resources created by smart people in higher education. Every time an edu contributes resources to the open web, we make the web a better, more informed space for all.

I like to think of it as making the web more educational, less Perez Hilton.

Onto the Geography open textbook.

First, there is a lot of evidence that the book is being used by the intended audience of BC post-secondary institutions as there are referring links back to sections of the book from post-secondary domains at KPU, UVic, Langara, VCC, UBC and VIU. Most of the referring links I follow back take me to a landing page for an LMS at that institution, telling me that the content is being referred to from inside a course. This may not be a full adoption of the resource by the faculty, but it does indicate that the resources are being used by the intended audience.

But use of the resources extends beyond BC higher ed. A large source of referral traffic is from the Oslo International School, which appears to be an International Baccalaureate primary school. Again, when I follow the referring link I am met with an LMS login screen. It’s crazy to think that a regionally specific resource aimed at a first year Geography student in British Columbia is finding use at a primary IB school in Oslo, Norway. You never know where you’ll end up when you go open.

It is not the only K-12 school referring to these resources. Teachers from School District 43 in BC have recommend (Word) the section on Residential Schools to their students as a resource for students doing a research project.  Teachers in School District 63 are using the section of the textbook dedicated to the BC Gold Rush as a learning resource in their classes.

Those two resources have also found use outside of education. The Royal BC Museum Learning Portal has included a link back to the textbook section on the Gold Rush as a resource on their learning website dedicated to the BC Gold Rush, and Vice included a referential link back to the section on Residential Schools in an article it published on the Canadian Truth Commission on Residential School.

The textbook is also showing up on some kid friendly search engines. A referral from a KidRex search on the Hope Slide led me back to the search results page for the search and shows that the Hope Slide case study in the textbook comes up as the second result (behind the Wikipedia entry).

None of these uses save students a penny, but show the value of an open resource beyond the financial. No doubt that the student savings are important as the financial barriers are real. But to me, seeing this kind of usage of OER shows the benefits extend beyond students. These resources make the web better for all. It is higher ed freely contributing knowledge to the world. It is higher ed making the world much less Perez Hilton.

Addendum: Gill Green, one of the original book authors and current Open textbook Faculty Fellow sent me this tweet about a resource we created for the book.


Our open Geography textbook is alive!

BC in a Global ContextWell, this is a few weeks later than I was hoping thanks to some last minute wrangling we needed to do with the PressBooks PDF output and image sizes, but it is finally ready for use.

British Columbia in a Global Context is a first year Geography open (CC-BY) textbook that was created by a group of faculty, designers, librarians, instructional designers and other open educators during in a four day book sprint held earlier this summer.

This first year Geography textbook takes a holistic approach to Geography by incorporating elements of physical, human and regional geography, as well as bringing in methods and perspectives from spatial information science.

The process of how this book came about has been well documented so if you are interested, you can check out the posts on the BCcampus Open Education site. For now, I just want to get the word out and start finding Geography faculty who might be interested in reviewing the textbook.


The BC Open Textbook Sprint – the afterglow

Note: This is a cross-post from our BCcampus Open Education blog.

48,420 words. 8 chapters.

Day 1

The first BC open textbook sprint wrapped up late Thursday night after 4 long days of collaborative writing, researching, editing and reviewing. We’ll have a more thorough debrief of the event in the coming days. For now, here is what is happening with the book.


Over the next 2 weeks, we will be moving the book into PressBooks Textbooks, the platform we are using as our primary book creation platform. For the sprint, we did not use PressBooks but instead used a collaborative writing platform called PubSweet, created by the BookSprints team. After discussing whether to use the BookSprints platform or our platform, we decided to use PubSweet as the authoring platform for the sprint because the facilitators were familiar with the platform. And, given the mammoth task ahead of us to create a 1st year Geography textbook in 4 days, we decided that rather than add a level of complexity onto the process, we would stick with what our facilitators were familiar with working with. So, our first task post-sprint is to transfer the book from PubSweet to PressBooks Textbooks.

This should not be a huge issue as PubSweet exports the book in ePub and PressBooks Textbooks (thanks to the work of programmer Brad Payne) can import ePub files. We had a few moments of concern with our first attempts to import the book into PressBooks due to the way that PubSweet packages ePub files, but a few emails back and forth to the PubSweet developer by Barbara our facilitators and we think the issue is fixed. So, task one is to get the book into PressBooks.


After that, I’ll be undertaking a thorough review of the book looking closely at how the resources we used are attributed. During the sprint, attribution of resources was often noting more than a link to where we found it (after we reviewed to ensure that we could use them under the open license we wished to publish with). But these resources are not attributed correctly, so that needs to be reviewed and corrected.

We will also have copy editors review the entire book. We are still working on the details of the contracts with our copy editors so that has added a bit of a delay in the release of the book. But, with some luck, we should have the copy editing underway in July and completed early August.

Finally, we will release the book. It will be available for download and reuse immediately after it is copy edited (we hope this will be done in August). Once it is publicly released, we will be soliciting peer reviews from Geography faculty from around the province, like we are currently doing with all the books in our collection.

There are many people to thank for making the past week possible. First and foremost, the 5 Geography faculty who were brave enough to commit to locking themselves in a room with a bunch of strangers to write a book in an incredibly short amount of time. The first to sign on was Arthur Green of Okanagan College, followed by Britta Ricker (SFU), Siobhan McPhee (UBC), Aviv Ettya (UFV), and Cristina Temenos (SFU). These people worked incredibly hard, putting in 12-14 hour days, to create the book. Barbara  Ruehling from BookSprints facilitated the entire event, assisted for the first 2 days by Faith Bosworth. UBC librarian Jon Strang was a priceless resource. The BCcampus support crew of Amanda Coolidge, Hilda Anggraeni (who was our illustrator and created & contributed dozens of maps and graphs during the sprint), Brad Payne and Christy Foote. Each of these people gave tirelessly to see the book created in 4 days and make this project happen.

See photos of the 4 day sprint on the BCcampus and BookSprint Flickr accounts. We also tweeted about it using the #bcbooksprint hashtag.

Day 1

All photos from BCCampus_news used under CC-BY-SA license


Opportunity lost when government content isn't openly licensed

tl:dr  Publicly funded materials should be openly licensed materials

It is day 2 of the BC open Geography textbook sprint (follow along via blog, Twitter or Flickr). I’m hunkered down with some Geography faculty who are working extremely hard to create a first-year open Geography textbook in 4 days.

The book is very regional, using British Columbia specific case studies, and I’ve been working with our librarian and the faculty to source openly licensed BC specific Geography resources to use in our openly licensed textbook (it will be released with a CC-BY license). The problem is we keep finding useable materials on our own provincial government websites that are protected by copyright and not openly licensed.

Why is this a problem? Well, we can’t use it. We have made a commitment to release anything we create under a Creative Commons license to make it as reusable and shareable as possible.

Now, we could go through the hoops and hurdles and fill out forms and ask the government for permission to use the resources. And we just might get permission to use them for the context of this one book. But anyone who would want to reuse the book down the line would have to go back to the copyright holder (the provincial government), most likely fill out those same forms, wait, and then renegotiate the rights to reuse those resources. It’s not impossible, but a significant barrier to reuse.

Or, we could negotiate to use them in the book with the caveat that anyone down the road would need to remove the copyrighted content, which means that the book is not as complete as it could be. Again, doable, but a barrier for reuse that weakens the book.

We could ask the government to release the content under a Creative Commons license. They may or may not do that. But that will take time and there is no guarantee that it will happen. We need to make a decision about what resources we want to use now. 4 days.

But what bothers me the most is that here we have a project that would benefit the citizens of British Columbia by giving them access to a free learning resource and we cannot use resources that those same citizens have paid for. We have paid to create resources like the charts and graphs in this report, or this historical image from the BC Archives, or this one. And there is this map and this one – resources that would be useful for our Geography textbook. Yet these resources are virtually unusable because they were not released with an open license.

How much more bang for our buck could the taxpayers of BC get if these resources were allowed to be used in other contexts that benefited the citizens of BC?

So, what is the final result? The content is not being used. It is being passed over in favour of openly licensed content. The barriers worked, and that feels like such an unfortunate and unnecessary waste.

The opposite case: Government of Canada

For every frustration I have had with trying to use BC government resources, I have had nothing but success with the federal government. Every resource we have looked at using in the textbook has been openly licensed. We are able to use data, graphs and charts from Stats Canada, and maps from the Atlas of Canada, all openly licensed for reuse. There is a wealth of primary source information that our Geography faculty are using as the basis for the textbook. It has been hugely encouraging to see how much data and information our federal government is releasing and allowing reuse of.

Now obviously, there are important open government initiatives underway in this province, like, uh, well, you know – this little open project that I am working on and DataBC. But I hope that these open initiatives are just the start in British Columbia and that someday in the near future when we are creating more open educational resources that will benefit the citizens of BC, we’ll have the ability to freely use, reuse and redistribute content from our own provincial government.

Image: Day 1 by BCCampus released under a CC-BY-SA 2 license


Prepping for the Geography Textbook Sprint

We are just over a week away from our first shot at running a textbook sprint and I’m feeling anxious, excited, and nervous.

The sprint will bring together 5 Geography faculty who will, over the course of 4 days, complete a first year Geography textbook. The venue at UBC is booked, the faculty are pumped and ready to go (we’ve got people from SFU, UBC, Okanagan College, and one person from both University of Fraser Valley & BCIT). Along with those people, we’ll also have Adam Hyde facilitating the event for the 4 days. To support the faculty, a number of my BCcampus colleagues will be on hand; Amanda Coolidge will be bringing her Instructional Design sensibility. Brad Payne his programming chops, and Hilda Angreeni is on board as the designated graphic designer/illustrator. All will bring a big dose of awesomeness and enthusiasm. Late, but very welcome, additions are librarians Jon Strang and Erin Fields from UBC to assist with researching.

So, we have the team in place.

Prepping for this has been making sure the logistical details are taken care of – venue, accommodations, food, supplies, networks, communication, etc. That has taken a good bulk of time and is increasing as we get closer to the June 9th kickoff. But a big part of the work has also been to try to continue some of the research I started earlier this spring on the pedagogical qualities of a good textbook.

It’s a fine line here because a big part of what makes a book sprint successful is this sense of shared ownership and responsibility that comes from this little community of people we are pulling together. Much of what the textbook will be is determined by the people in the room in the first hours of the sprint. Everyone needs to feel that they have had input to make the book in order for the process to work. But we did want to try to provide something of a framework and some examples of the elements of a textbook to try to help with setting the structure of the book.

One item I found that I quite liked was this Wikibooks article that talks about the structure of a textbook and how structure aides learning. After spending some time with Amanda and Hilda talking about the 5 rules for structuring content mentioned in the article, we thought that making it into an infographic and having it as a poster would be a useful tool to have in the room. So, with Hilda’s design magic and Amanda’s wordsmithing, we have this nice little artifact adapted from the original Wikibooks articles that we think will be a decent reminder of some of the principles in play when structuring content.

RulesOfTextbooksReally, when you look at those principles, you can see that these principles could easily apply to structuring any learning material, not just a textbook. Hopefully it will be a useful guide to help get us started developing the textbook, and provide some overarching advice that can help us mesh the work of 5 different content experts into a consistent and unified finished product.

I have to say, I am nervous about all of this. We’re asking a lot of the participants to create a book from start to finish in 4 days. And not just any book, but a book full of facts that need to be verified and checked, engaging learner activities, and pedagogical elements that make it a compelling alternative to a commercial textbook. It is a challenge, for sure. But beyond that it is an experiment in collaboration. Some things will work, some things won’t. It’s a first for all of us and right now there are questions that can only be answered in the doing. And I am ready to do.


A sprinting we will go!

Sprint Board

Ok, I am pretty pumped about this. I’ve been working on this for the past few months and am very happy to see it coming to fruition. Earlier this week I got budget approval to go ahead with a textbook sprint.

In a nutshell, a textbook sprint is an intense 3-5 day event that brings together 6-8 authors to write a book. I wrote a post in November about our preliminary thinking around having a textbook sprint and last month posted some notes from a conversation I had with Erika Pearson about her textbook sprint at University of Otago in New Zealand last fall.

Now, coming out of a textbook sprint with a full textbook is the primary goal. But I have another equally important goal for the event, one that relates directly to the sustainability of an open textbook. I am hoping that the faculty who take part in the co-creation of the textbook emerge feeling a sense of ownership around what they have created in this intense burst of activity, and that this feeling of ownership translates into the beginnings of a community of practice going forward. Having this intense event act as the impetus which leads to stewardship of the textbook.

I’ll be writing more about the logistics of the event, but for now I am happy to say that Adam Hyde will be coming to facilitate the event. Adam has developed a methodology for book sprints & has completed over 70 book sprints resulting in a finished book every time. It’s an impressive track record.

Originally I gave a thought to facilitating the event myself. But after reading this article (PDF) from Phil Barker, Lorna M. Campbell and Martin Hawksey at Cetis in the U.K. who, along with Amber Thomas at the University of Warwick, worked with Adam on an OER-oriented book sprint I changed my mind. Specifically, this quote stuck in my head:

“It is my belief that Book Sprints succeed or fail based primarily on facilitation. I have seen sprints fail because of inexperienced facilitation by people who do not really understand what the process is and how all the issues come into play”

So I contacted Adam, and I am very happy I did. After speaking to Adam I was quite impressed with his thinking around what it takes to have a successful book sprint, and his thinking about the crucial role that an impartial facilitator plays in making sure the project gets done in the limited time allotted. He also understands the importance of positive group dynamics and creating an atmosphere of true collaboration in order to reach that goal we have of developing a community moving forward. And he seems like an interesting guy who I’d like to hang out with for a few days. I am really looking forward to learning from him.

The idea is we will bring together 6 faculty for 4 days in June, hunker down at SFU Burnaby UBC Vancouver & bang out a credible, useable open textbook.

The dates we have are June 9-12 and the subject area we are going to concentrate on is 1st year Geography.

Geography is a broad discipline, so to help narrow the scope I spoke with with the head of the Geography articulation committee here in BC, Jim Bowers at Langara, to get a better sense as to where we should focus our efforts. After a bit of brainstorming, I think we are going to look at developing a regional Geography of Canada textbook. There are a couple of reasons for this focus.

  1. Regional Geography is a common 1st year course across institutions in B.C. so it would have broad appeal.
  2. Being that it is a Geography of Canada book, the textbook would have appeal outside of B.C. so we could create something that had value for other jurisdictions as well.
  3. We have an opportunity with the B.C. Open Textbook project to create something that is needed in our province (Geography is one of the top 40 subject areas identified in our early textbook needs analysis), but will probably not be picked up as a development project by any of the other major open textbook initiatives currently underway, such as OpenStax College or SUNY Open Textbooks.  Those projects are primarily U.S. based projects and the development of a textbook so Canada specific will be of little interest to them. Unfortunately, the downside of choosing such a Canada specific project for the book sprint means that we are creating something that will probably have little interest for those projects in return, but I am confident that there are many other areas where our work will compliment each others.
  4. There are existing open Geography resources that I think we can draw on to help seed the book with content. When I look in SOLR (our repository of open content here in BC) I can find over 30 Geography resources listed there, including many full first year open Geography courses. This is content that has been created over the years by B.C. faculty funded by provincial OPDF funds, and I see this as an incredible opportunity for us to build and reuse open content that has already been created by B.C. Faculty.

Next steps now that the funding & logistics are in place is finding game faculty. If you know of any faculty who teach Geography in B.C. who might be game for a challenge, please direct them to this page on the website, or have them contact me directly at

Photo: Sprint Board by Rool Paap used under CC/ CC-BY license


Learning from others: Textbook sprinting in New Zealand

I’m picking up steam on researching and planning a possible textbook sprint here in BC as part of the open textbook project. While I am still in the research stages of how this thing might work, I’m feeling more confident that with the right people involved we can pull off a textbook sprint.

Just before Christmas I had a chance to speak with Erika Pearson at Otago University in New Zealand. In November, Erika ran a textbook hack to create a first year Media Studies textbook and during the course of our chat I got a better understanding of some of the logistics involved in pulling it together. I am appreciative of her time and willingness to share, and look forward to the cookbook they are planning on releasing later this spring on how to organize a textbook sprint. Here are my notes from our convo.

  • Timeline for the entire project was about 3 months (project plan and a more detailed timeline are posted).
  • There were about 10 participants involved in the Otago sprint. Surprsing to me, most of them were distributed, so communication was virtual done through Google Hangouts.
  • Most of the authors were actually grad students which turned the activity into a powerful authentic learning experience (she’s talking my language here).
  • Authors had a dual role – writing & peer reviewing what other wrote.
  • Erika stressed the important role of designating an OER librarian to help source and attribute resources needed on the fly. A strong CC bg with knowledge of CC & educational repositories.
  • Prior to the sprint, the authors met virtually & came up with a rough outline of the book, including topics and chapters. This was based on course outlines shared by faculty. In retrospect, Erika said she wished that there would have been a bit more pre-work done ahead of time and that everyone came to the sprint with draft chapters that could then be honed and worked on over the actual sprint. Note to self: do as much work ahead of time. By the time we all get together face to face, a good bulk of work might already be done.
  • Write in sprints. Erika’s project broke their day into 90 minute writing chunks, followed by a period of peer review. Iterative development. Note to self: if we use PressBooks (which I want to do if this goes ahead) what kind of workflowing tools do we have/can we add to facilitate a review process?
  • There were a number of virtual lurkers in the hangout. Note to self: make external participation possible (video, chat, event hashtag)
  • Have a note taker to record what needs to be done as it comes up. They kept a spreadsheet of tasks that got added to as the sprint progressed.
  • A fact checker would be a good role to have. Someone to research as problems/disputes/questions of content arise so that authors don’t get bogged down in surfing for answers to questions.

Erika’s project was supported by Creative Commons.

I am also hoping to speak to Siyavula and Adam Hyde of Book Sprints to get some bg on how their events work. But right now I am thinking along these lines:

  • Sprint is a bit of a misnomer as I think most of the work will be done ahead of time in the weeks/months leading up to the actual sprint. Therefore, trying to find a time where faculty have at least a few weeks leading up to the actual event to work on the project will be important. Perhaps early June might be a good time?
  • We’ll need a few pre-event virtual sessions of participants, including some technical training on the platform, setting up the structure, and draft writing. Perhaps 3 seperate pre-event synchronous sessions?
  • The actual sprint itself. If we can get most of the authoring work done ahead of time, 2, maybe 3 days would be what we would need together. Anything longer than that might be a tough f2f commitment for some to make. And, if the actual days are as intense as I think they might be, any longer risks burnout.
  • Subject area. I have one in mind and I have contacted the head of the provincial articulation committee for that area to get his input & feedback. It is an area that currently has no existing open textbook available, but (I suspect) quite a few open resources available. And the subject area is perfect to create something very Canada-specific, which may not get created otherwise by some of the more U.S.-centric projects.
  • A synchronous PressBooks code sprint. This is something Brad Payne and I have been discussing. Alongside the book sprint it might be useful to have running parallel a PressBooks code sprint. There are a number of enhancements that could be made to PressBooks to make it a better tool for collaborative textbook authoring, and having the input of users at the time they are actually using the tool might be invaluable. And it could be a real catalyst to improving participation rates among developers for the project. If we can find some WordPress developers interested in working with us on improving PressBooks, this could be a very useful exercise as it would be great to see more developers participate from higher ed.

Thinking about a BC textbook booksprint/hackathon

Drupal Code Sprint

This week we have started talking about how we can make a BC textbook book sprint a reality in the spring of 2014. These are still very preliminary plans, but I’m very jazzed about the potential.

A book sprint is inspired by code sprints in the software development world where, in a very short time with a number of participants, something concrete is created. In the world of academic software development, I think of projects like the One Week, One Tool project out of George Mason University, which has given us tools like Anthologize and this years Serendip-o-matic  developed in an intense one week burst of coding frenzy. (aside: I am a big fanboy of the work of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason. They have built some wonderful digital tools over the years, including Zotero, which I really should have included in my support what you use post as it is a tool that I do use every day for my research).

In the textbook hacking space, there has been some great projects that we can draw inspiration from, including Siyavula in South Africa, the Utah Open Textbook project , the Finland hackathon that produced a math textbook in 3 days, and (over the past weekend), the Creative Commons supported textbook hackathon at the University of Otago in New Zealand that produced a first year media studies and communications textbook.

This last project is especially interesting for 2 reasons. One, we are looking for a media and communications handbook for our open textbook collection and even though this will be create with a New Zealand focus, there will probably be material in there that we can use as a starting point to create our own media studies and communication textbook.

Second, one of the goals of the event was to create a textbook book sprint cookbook; a guide for others to use who wish to do a similar event. I love serendipity. Needless to say, I am looking forward to getting my hands on that cookbook, and have to applaud the crew involved in the project for recognizing that capturing the process is just as important as the final result. Open FTW.

As I said, these are really early days in our planning, and one of the first pieces we need to figure out is whether we create something from scratch, or whether we modify an existing resource. While many of the examples so far have focused on creating something from scratch, I actually think there is great value in having a book sprint where we remix an existing resource instead of creating from scratch. Remixing works is still a foreign and uncomfortable idea with many challenges (both technical and cultural). A remix-a-thon might help us address some of those issues head on and develop some real and concrete tools that could empower and enable others to look at remix as a viable option.

We also have to figure out the right mix of people to be involved. Obviously there will be faculty (subject matter experts), but what kinds of resources will we need to support them? Technical support, developers, editors, designers And how do we begin to facilitate the work? It needs to be tightly focused to meet the tight deadline. What kind of pre-event work needs to be done so that by the time you get to the event everyone is prepped and ready to roll? These are all questions that we will need to answer in the coming weeks and months as we begin to flesh out this plan.

Photo: Drupal code sprint by Kathleen Murtagh used under a CC-BY license