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University of Wisconsin-Madison has been using Pressbooks as a platform to facilitate open educational resources (OER) and open textbook publishing for years.
Steel Wagstaff, an instructional technology consultant at UW-Madison, piloted the use of Pressbooks at the university starting in 2015 to help faculty create open educational resources for the UW-Madison’s College of Letters & Science.
After demonstrating the platform’s success, Steel reached out to Unizin, a higher education consortium of which UW-Madison was a founding member, to request that they host an open source Pressbooks network with additional plugins for the university. Unizin’s self-hosted network was launched in August 2016.
Since then, UW-Madison faculty and staff have created nearly 250 book shells on the network. Though many of these shells are used as sandboxes for new users to test how the platform works, at least 70 are real projects in later stages of development.
UW-Madison, along with other Unizin schools, migrated their production network to a PressbooksEDU hosted network in June 2018.
When looking for early adopters, Steel initially approached faculty who he knew were committed to teaching, were particular in their choice of course materials, and already had produced teaching materials but lacked a good mechanism to deliver them to students. Many instructors have developed their own course materials, sometimes writing and maintaining their own textbook in a DIY fashion with desktop publishing or word processing tools like Microsoft Word, for instance. These instructors “had already written teaching materials, but were frustrated in how to deliver them.” In these cases, Steel emphasized how using Pressbooks to publish their content on the web could help them make their teaching material more interactive and broadly accessible to other interested learners.
Steel says Pressbooks has been particularly useful for four categories of projects, which he outlines in this presentation.
The first is course materials designed to supplement or replace existing texts. More than a dozen projects at UW-Madison fall into this category, the most high-profile of which is Global Regions: World Regional Geography for a Globalizing World from Geography professor Dr. Kris Olds.
A number of departments at UW-Madison, including Chemistry, Physics and Math, have been redesigning courses and curriculum for active learning. In some cases, they are using the opportunity to create open content. Some of these texts are new works; others are adoptions or remixes of existing open texts, like those published by OpenStax.
Language instruction, training, outreach, and distance learning are other subject areas where Steel advocates building materials in Pressbooks.
Steel says a variety of instructors of less commonly taught languages have found there is no suitable resource to use as a textbook, and for that reason they have already been creating their own materials.
Pressbooks is great for language practice texts, he says, because it allows you to include exercises in the book using the H5P plugin. Current texts in various stages of development on UW-Madison’s Pressbooks network cover Portuguese, Indonesian, Hindi, Tibetan, and African languages. Not all of these projects are full textbooks, but each includes a variety of teaching materials in the target language.
There are also some books that serve as teasers for full courses. One example is a continuing ed course on Wisconsin weather. Four chapters from the text are available free on the web, where those who stumble upon it can say, “Oh, here’s some cool course content. I like this. I’m interested. Maybe I want to take the course and talk to a professor and learn more about it.”
Another use case for Pressbooks at UW-Madison has been compilations – student- or professor-produced anthologies of public domain texts. Steel, who has a Ph.D. in English, says there are many pre-1923, public-domain texts on Project Gutenberg that could be used in this way. The Open Syllabus Project, he adds, tracks the most commonly assigned texts. He would love to see a clonable collection of all of these texts which are now in the public domain published using Pressbooks, he notes.
Over the years, there have also been a variety of projects in which faculty or students do research in the community and compile that into a student-authored, university-community partnership text. Among these, professor Anna Andrzejewski had her students document Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. Later, she took students to North Dakota to do a similar project with farm buildings. A different class built a catalog for a historical exhibit at Mount Horeb’s Driftless Historium museum. The exhibit looked at ethnic identity through objects. Students did research and wrote pieces about the story behind each of the objects. Print copies were made, and the ebook version was on display on an iPad at the exhibit.
Some of the books are used privately, or they are public but not showcased in the main UW-Madison Pressbooks catalog yet.
Though Steel has occasionally done systematic project management for book projects, he primarily has provided Pressbooks training and resources while cultivating an OER community.
When faculty or instructors at UW-Madison express interest in using Pressbooks to make or adapt an open text, Steel and his graduate assistant, Naomi Salmon, conduct an hour-long training and provide resources, such as Naomi’s OER Activity Sourcebook and Pressbooks 101. They also conduct a monthly Pressbooks user group meeting (community of practice), which usually attracts 20-35 attendees. It includes a show-and-tell from faculty users and some how-to from him and Naomi, which is helpful for those new to Pressbooks.
“Hearing people talk about their ongoing projects is usually a highlight of these meetings, Steel says, “because they help everyone else expand their sense of the possible, get new ideas for the projects they’re working on, and work through common problems. The group almost always has better ideas for solving tricky issues than any one of us would singly.”
Steel and Naomi later make and send out a list of FAQs to answer questions that arise in the session for those who couldn’t attend in person.
Steel also demos Pressbooks to other instructional designers as well as central IT personnel, and they too become front-line trainers to faculty from different disciplines.
When it comes to teaching and learning, Steel says the Pressbooks platform supports UW-Madison’s needs better than any other tool he researched. That the software is open source is a major asset.
“The thing that I love most is that it’s open source,” Steel says.
That was particularly important, he says, because he was interested in trying things that currently weren’t available on hosted networks, and he was able to make those requests known to the Pressbooks developers through the open source community. The fact the software was open source allowed UW-Madison to hack solutions that would not have been possible on proprietary software.
“I feel like I’ve been able to be involved and been embraced by the Pressbooks development community,” he says.
He also appreciates that Pressbooks is web-based, but offers a range of other export formats (PDF for print-on-demand, EPUB and MOBI for ebookstores, open formats like HTML, XML, OpenDocument, and more).
“I’m thinking of this mainly as a web publishing tool,” Steel says, adding that he is “bullish” on the possibility of including in-line interaction, such as quizzes, in context.
He also likes the ability to collapse sections of text, a feature he says is particularly useful for language textbooks, where you might want to hide a translation at first, but let a learner expand it to check their understanding.
Steel says one great aspect of Pressbooks is the newly integrated H5P plugin, which lets users combine text and distributed quiz questions in the same container – something he notes that learning management systems still don’t do very well.
He has also been pushing the bounds with Hypothes.is, an annotation plugin available in Pressbooks. The tool allows for another layer of interaction and engagement with the material by making it possible for instructors to enable student comments and highlights on a webbook posted either publicly or within a private group.
“The annotation layer is just gravy,” he says. “What it allows us to do is to have a canonical main body of the text, and then various layers or flavors of non-canonical or participatory text.”
As a case in point, he cites one class in which students read Revolutionary War-era literature in the public domain and comment or reflect in a layer on Hypothes.is.
“You’re allowing various levels of authority to experiment at, participate in, become part of the textual experience,” he says. “Enabling truly social conversation about the object of study is terrific for teaching and learning.”
Steel also likes the fact Pressbooks can be integrated into a learning management system and have the content appear natively. He believes that helps to reduce cognitive load on students consuming the text.
“I love that [books on] Pressbooks can exist as a web object on the open web and be free for anyone who wants to learn anywhere in the world, independent of their university affiliation,” he says. “We also recognize that most of the people that are building these texts are planning to use them in college, [and] at least on our campus, they want to use them in their college class.”
Steel talks more about the reasons he chose Pressbooks and the due diligence he underwent in this Medium post.
Recently, Steel has begun to partner with Carrie Nelson, the UW-Madison libraries’ director of scholarly communications, with whom he hopes to build a group that is enthusiastic about OER.
Steel also hopes to promote more OER adaptations going forward.
“I would say what’s strange about our use case so far is that we’ve mainly focused on new creation,” he says, which seems impractical given the prevalence of open resources. “Why aren’t we adopting and adapting?”
When that happens, he says, Pressbooks’ cloning feature will become even more valuable.
“And increasingly, as people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m interested in using an OER that I’ve reviewed,’ for example, through the Open Textbook Network, then cloning is going to be a killer feature.”
He notes that this won’t be fully useful until they can clone H5P and Hypothes.is annotations too.
But with their PressbooksEDU network newly hosted by Pressbooks through the Unizin consortium, Steel feels optimistic about the possibilities.
“Right now, we have a pretty experimental cobbling together of a bunch of custom homemade plugins and weird stuff,” he says. “Genericizing, standardizing, and making that feel stable and powerful is, for me, the way forward for us.”
Steel says the more the platform is standardized, the more useful it will be to other schools and institutions, who will also adopt it.
“Participating and coordinating our work with other institutions, like our fellow Unizin consortium members, helps me feel more secure, in that we no longer need to be the only ones out there at the very bleeding edge, doing this difficult, experimental thing.”