Pressbooks is Backbone for Nascent OER Efforts at University of Central Florida

It was while searching for a tool to help an American Government professor adapt an open textbook that James Paradiso, an instructional designer at University of Central Florida, discovered his university’s Pressbooks instance.

UCF is a member of Unizin, a consortium of higher education institutions across the United States. Unizin offers access to educational software like PressbooksEDU to its member universities.   

James was looking for suitable tools to help a professor adapt an OpenStax textbook for a high-enrollment course, and after exploration, he found that Pressbooks fit the bill perfectly.

He was able to use a developer instance of Pressbooks to test out the BCcampus-created OpenStax plugin, which allowed him to easily pull in the text. He cleaned up the HTML, then cloned the book over to UCF’s instance of Pressbooks in fall 2017. The book was ready to use for the spring 2018 semester, and has been revised twice since.

“No one told me, ‘Hey, use Pressbooks,’” said James. “I just thought to myself, ‘I want a solution and this seems like a cool platform, and I’m interested in a way to put OER in a customizable space.”

James has created sandbox access for a few other faculty who have also expressed interest in trying out Pressbooks for a project.

“We’re in a very nascent stage,” he says.

James has also used the Pressbooks cloning feature to bring in a few existing open textbooks to the system from OpenStax and Lumen Learning. He started with high-enrollment, general education courses and began bringing relevant texts into the catalog, which he hopes will be good talking points with faculty interested in moving to OER.

“The type of materials that are most interesting to me,” James says, “[are] works that are complete (or nearly complete) and reviewed, so I can provide faculty with an ‘out-of-the-box’ type of solution that can be modified or rearranged. This is why [I took the] approach to build a library/repository, to encourage buy-in.”

James, who has a background in leveraging open educational resources in the classroom, is the main person supporting Pressbooks at his institution. But as his job and caseload have changed—he is now on the Adaptive Learning team—he knows he needs to inspire others to get involved to help this scale.

As the next step, James hopes to gain support from colleagues to help spread the word about Pressbooks and its ability to help faculty revise, remix and/or reuse open textbooks.

“My goal is to try to build some awareness sessions around Pressbooks,” James says. “I need to build a workflow around awareness and training.” He would also like to get some of the cloned and ingested books cleaned up and ready for launch, and get at least two more adoptions by the beginning of the fall semester.

His workflow in Pressbooks first involved using the OpenStax importer plugin (coming soon to PressbooksEDU networks) to clone books.

However, now that more networks are using Pressbooks, the power of the cloning tool has increased. “I can just take a link to the Presbooks book and clone straight from that!” While cloning is technologically easy, faculty may still need to refine the content before the adapted book is ready to use.

“Bringing in a textbook from another university…is quite a bit more time-consuming than some would imagine,” James says. Such textbooks reflect the authors’ personalized preferences for how they taught the subject, meaning the adapted text might need more revision before becoming student-facing.

“So, I find bringing a more ‘base-model’ version from Lumen [Learning], or bringing in from OpenStax might actually save time and effort.”

When faculty are creating an OER from scratch, James finds it’s best “when people are intrinsically motivated to build something that’s directly related to an initiative they’re working on.”

James says the people most willing to work on open textbook projects so far have been instructor-lecturers, who are focused on teaching and have a high percentage of instruction in their responsibilities breakdown. Long-tenured professors, particularly those with expensive textbooks, have also been receptive.

“So that’s what I’ve learned—instructor-lecturers yes, [and] tenure-earning faculty who are willing to shake it up because they’re looking to try something new, or they’re like, ‘Wow, my students are spending a lot of money,’” James says. “Especially in certain disciplines—[students spend] approximately $200 a semester on their textbook, and even an etext is upwards of $120. It seems [these professors] are at the point in their career where they’re reflecting more on that.”

He believes those that fall between these two ends of the spectrum would be best incentivized by top-down programs. It’s tough to combat stigmas around the quality and/or rigor of OER texts, and sometimes departments have long-standing track records with certain textbooks.

“The publishing reps—they live here at my university. They’re in those hallways just as much if not more than I am, talking to the same people I’m talking to, working deals with them, discounted deals.”

James says it’s probably not the same everywhere, citing community colleges where faculty are strongly encouraged and maybe even required to use open resources.

“UCF is working on creating more momentum around OER / textbook affordability,” James says. “I’m happy to be part of it.”

He says some professors have been excited about the idea that, with an open textbook, they could provide first-day access to educational resources for their classroom. Students wouldn’t have to wait for loans and scholarships to come through, or wait for others to buy the text then borrow it afterward.

In a class of 600-1,200 students, not having first-day access can have a substantial impact.

“You can affect a lot of people with that solution if your class offers a book that’s available on day one,” James says. “If someone didn’t read the textbook, there’s no monetary excuse, at least.”

Still, James says, when advocating OER, he is competing with big publishers who have gotten better at reducing such frictions, with inclusive access and other options.

“I feel like I’m contending with big hitters who can offer solutions—quick solutions.”

Writing, or even adapting, a textbook, can be labor-intensive, James admits. And even Pressbooks’ WordPress-based interface can be intimidating for authors who are new to it, a category James includes himself in.

He said there was a learning curve to find ways to adjust the text size, use textboxes, and insert images. Figuring out best practices for these took some trial and error.

“It’s not an obvious process,” he says, adding that professors need that basic functionality of text size adjustment and it’s important to be able to let them know they can create a book that looks professional.

Still, he says, the Pressbooks product has been making lots of helpful updates.

“I love that they’ve recently added a feature where I don’t have to leave the editor to go from chapter to chapter,” James says. ”That was a big headache for me before. When that update hit, I was like ‘yes!’ I was really happy.”

Another thing he’s excited for is the ability to “chunk” content into shorter chapters and click a “next” button so that long chapters don’t seem so overwhelming.

James says he’s glad for the community around Pressbooks, as well as the staff he has encountered.  

“I’ve found the community to be really helpful and all the people surrounding the project to be my saving grace in all of this,” James says. “I can’t speak highly enough about all the people I’ve worked with up to this point. [They’ve been] very accessible, very helpful, and very interested in what, individually, we’re doing.”

In 2018, Unizin moved away from running an open source network and partnered with Pressbooks to host Unizin institutions’ Pressbooks networks.

James says that now that their open source network has moved to Pressbooks hosting, the university will hopefully be able to leverage some of the new Pressbooks-developed features such as LTI and single sign-on.

“I think the improvements have been positive. I’m pretty happy with it,” James says. “The tool is very, very useful and very helpful, and it’s only getting better.”

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