Way back in mid-March, we closed our office as a precautionary measure in response to COVID-19, and since then I have been planning (and planning and planning) to write about Pressbooks and the ways open digital technologies, open content, and open practices can be part of a resilience strategy in the face of upheavals like
In a previous post, I took a look at the year in review for the Pressbooks community (the people who make and use our software). In this post, I’ll take a closer look as Pressbooks as a product, covering some of the exciting changes and developments to our software made in 2018 by our hard-working developers and generous contributors.
On January 1, 2018, Pressbooks software was the following:
- Pressbooks (our core plugin): version 4.5.0
- Pressbooks default book theme: pressbooks-book 1.12.0 [Luther]
- Pressbooks root theme: Pressbooks Publisher 3.1.3
- A handful of smaller plugins, including Pressbooks Stats 1.4.0 and DocRaptor for Pressbooks 2.1.0
Over the course of the year we made major updates to each piece of our core product and introduced several new tools and plugins. The most significant new releases were our new Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) provider and single sign-on (SSO) plugins, designed to help educational institutions connect their Pressbooks networks with their Learning Management Systems and enterprise login systems, and Buckram, a set of style components that makes book theming easier and more powerful.
In 2018, we also made it easier for anyone who wants to get a more granular look at planned releases and ongoing development work by creating and maintaining GitHub project boards for the project in general and for versioned releases of specific components like Pressbooks, pressbooks-book (McLuhan/Buckram), Aldine, and Pressbooks LTI Provider. These project boards are regularly updated by our dev team to include reference information about planned and completed releases.
We’re enormously grateful to the various institutions who funded different parts of this work and for their shared interest in contributing back to an open source product that benefits the entire community of users. eCampusOntario, Ryerson University, Rutgers University Libraries and Bay Path University each made significant contributions to our 2018 development work, and Brad Payne and Alex Paredes from BCcampus contributed code to two big new features that were added to our core product this year. Thank you, all!
Our core product is Pressbooks, a WordPress plugin that transforms a WordPress multisite into a powerful book publishing system that makes accessible webbooks and several types of exports, including ebooks, print-ready PDFs, and various XML flavors.
In 2018 we brought out 25 minor releases and 7 major releases of core Pressbooks (beginning with Pressbooks 5.0.0 in late February, running all the way up to Pressbooks 5.6.0, released in November). The last version of Pressbooks to be released in 2018 was 5.6.3, which came out on December 12. All told Pressbooks received a net addition of more than 16,000 lines of code from humans in 2018, with ~10,000 coming from Dac (across 161 commits), ~5,000 from Ned (across 322 commits), ~1,600 from BCcampus’ Brad Payne (across 8 commits), and ~100 from Lukas Kaiser (across 3 commits).
So those are the raw numbers. But what do they mean? How did Pressbooks improve over the last year? Well, in lots of ways. The obsessive among you are welcome to view a detailed changelog for a more exhaustive record of everything we shipped this past year, but the following list is a baker’s dozen of our favorite improvements from the past year:
- Major overhaul to the ‘Organize’ page: We improved the page’s accessibility for keyboard navigation and screen reader users and its usability when displayed on mobile devices. We made it easier to manage the visibility of content across web and exports; all content now has two binary options: “Show in Web” and “Show in Exports.” We also added book navigation options to the edit screen.
- Import & Export improvements: We added support for importing individual chapters from Pressbooks webbooks and for importing all supported file types from local and web-based sources. We added graceful fallbacks for interactive content that can’t be fully experienced in ebook and PDF exports. We enabled the inclusion of TablePress tables in eBook and PDF exports. We allowed users to produce HTMLBook exports, made our XHTML and HTMLBook outputs cleaner and more readable, and added a link to the diagnostics page which lets users to preview and debug PDF export issues directly in their browser using the XHTML source preview without having to repeatedly generate PDF exports.
- Cloning improvements: We also built on the book cloning feature (funded by Ryerson University) and the chapter-cloning feature (funded by eCampus Ontario) with a whole raft of cloning improvements, like adding a book source URL to Book Info for cloned books; allowing users to specify a new title for cloned books at the time of cloning; adding a theme option to let readers compare a clone book to its source; and adding cloning support for media attachments, media metadata (including attribution statements), and glossary terms.
- Glossary tool: We added a native glossary tool that allows authors to provide rollover and clickable definitions for glossary terms and to auto-generate a glossary list as a back matter type in their books. We’re very grateful to Brad Payne and Alex Paredes of BCcampus for contributing the first version of this feature.
- Shortcodes for authors: Thanks to support from Bay Path University, we added more than a dozen new shortcodes that work in both the visual editor and in document imports. These shortcodes make it easier for authors to include well-structured HTML elements without having to learn HTML.
- Interactive and other third party content: We added support for interactive content (like H5P activities, PhET simulations, Open Embeddable Assessments, Knight Lab timelines, and eduMedia interactives). We made it so that iframes embedded from trusted sources were automatically converted to shortcodes rather than being stripped and deleted. We also disabled the display of related videos in YouTube OEmbeds once videos are finished playing.
- Cover generator tool: We made our self-service cover generator tool part of our core plugin, making it available to open-source users. This tool makes it easier for authors to make attractive print-ready covers for their books.
- LaTeX and Mathematical Notation: We made it easier for users to use mathematical notation by improving support for WP QuickLaTeX, adding support for QuickLaTeX rendering within TablePress tables, and permitting the use of TablePress tables and SVG files in ebook formats.
- Centralized contributor management: We made it much easier for book admins to manage and display authors, editors, translators, reviewers, illustrators, and generic contributors to books. We also moved contributor management from the “Organize” menu to a more logical place under the “Book Info” menu in the dashboard.
- Better Textboxes: We improved the markup and display options for educational textboxes (learning objectives, key takeaways, exercises, examples) and added a new “sidebar” textbox that’s especially helpful for textbook content.
- Licensing and Attribution Improvements: We moved license types into a taxonomy and now differentiate between the CC0 license and public domain work. Pressbooks now allows users to add and display image attribution metadata, making it easier to properly credit CC and other openly licensed images when they’re reused in book (big thanks to Brad and Alex from BCcampus for their work on this feature).
- More script and language support: We added support for the Devanagari script and several languages, including Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, and Telugu, making our software more inclusive of the millions of people who use this script or these languages.
Pressbooks Default Book Theme
At the start of 2018, the default book theme for all Pressbooks networks was Luther (also known as pressbooks-book 1.12.0 for any version heads out there). When we released Pressbooks 5.0.0 in late February 2018, it was accompanied by McLuhan, a new book theme. Upon its release as pressbooks-book 2.0.0, McLuhan replaced Luther as the default theme for all new books, and Luther subsequently became available as a separate, standalone legacy theme. The development of McLuhan was supported by eCampus Ontario, and the theme itself was designed with textbooks in mind, although it supports all kinds of content.
Since its initial appearance, McLuhan has seen more than a dozen additional releases and is now on version 2.6.1 (interested readers can consult the detailed changelog). All told the pressbook-book repo saw the net addition of more than 80,000 lines of code by humans, with ~78,000 coming from Ned (across 397 commits), ~3,000 from Daniel (across 59 commits), and ~200 from Dac (across 19 commits). Of the many improvements we made to the default book theme in 2018, here are some of the biggest highlights:
- Support for new features: We added support in this theme for a number of new features now available in Pressbooks, including: an increased default webbook reading width and three new variable reading width options; collapsible sections; automatic resizing of webbook contents when the Hypothesis annotation pane is expended; optional lightbox for linked images; book and section Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs); glossary term lists; automatic graceful fallback for interactive content in ebook and PDF exports; and differentiated link styles for print and digital PDFs.
- Accessibility improvements: Thanks to support from Ryerson University, we added a keyboard-accessible table of contents and customizable colours and logos (inherited from network settings). We also improved webbook accessibility by adding more context to webbook navigation, using better HTML5 markup for images, improving focus styles, and enhancing the markup for headings and our table of contents.
- New theme options: Book admins now have several new theme options for customizing the appearance and functionality of their webbooks as well as eBook and PDF exports. These additional theme options are currently only available in the 8 themes we’ve converted to use Buckram (more on that later).
- Better navigation: We made webbook navigation consistent on all screen sizes, allowed authors to customize part/chapter labels in the webbook display and in exports, and now display more descriptive labels and/or chapter short titles in previous/next nav links.
- Table of Contents improvements: Books now indicate the current section in the dropdown ToC. We also added “Show All”/”Hide All” buttons to the webbook ToC, and improved the appearance and overall functionality of ToC in all locations.
- New features for cloned books: Cloned books include a reference and link back to their source and an optional comparison tool that lets you compare current versions of cloned and source texts.
- LMS-specific theming: We also added settings which allow extraneous navigational elements to be suppressed when content is loaded via LTI within a Learning Management System (as these typically have their own internal navigation).
Pressbooks Root Theme
In late February, we replaced Pressbooks Publisher with a new Pressbooks root theme, called Aldine. Aldine’s creation was one of the major improvements supported by Ryerson University. Since its initial appearance, Aldine has seen an additional eight releases and is now on version 1.5.0 (interested readers can consult the changelog).
Aldine was designed to make customizing the look and feel of Pressbooks networks easier. It gives network managers tools to add institutional branding to a Pressbooks network by letting them globally change default colors, logos and contact information for a network, introduces a standalone catalog page which can be sorted, filtered, and searched by subject or license, and makes it much easier to create and display additional pages to the network root (like “About Us,” “Get Help,” “Terms of Service,” etc.).
Following its initial release, we’ve added specific buttons to the page editor to insert shortcodes for page sections and calls to action; added more customizer options; made it possible to edit the contact form email directly from the Customizer; and made privacy and anti-spamming improvements.
We made a few minor updates to the small Pressbooks Stats plugin, with some bigger work planned for early 2019 (‘improving usage statistics at the network level’ refers to ongoing efforts to give network managers better tools for understanding how their networks are being used). The current version of Pressbooks Stats is now 1.6.2.
At the beginning of 2018, we also maintained a plugin which implemented a DocRaptor export module for Pressbooks as a drop-in replacement for PrinceXML. This standalone plugin was rolled into Pressbooks core with the release of Pressbooks 5.4.0 in July, and we are no longer maintaining the standalone plugin separately.
LTI Provider plugin
In May, we released a stable version of Pressbooks LTI Provider, thanks to support from Rutgers University Libraries. This plugin allows Pressbooks to act as an LTI provider, registering any number of LTI consumers, and supports both deep linking and the creation of Thin Common Cartridge exports with LTI links. LTI, which is short for Learning Tools Interoperability, is a specification maintained by IMS Global which allows third-party tools (like Pressbooks) to integrate with Learning Management Systems (like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard) in a standardized way. Using LTI makes it easier and more convenient for schools to securely plug learning tools and content into their LMS and make those tools and content feel native/seamless for learners.
In late 2017, while still employed at UW-Madison, I wrote in more detail about why I was so excited about using LTI to connect Pressbooks with LMSes. Much of what I wrote then still rings true for me today. In my opinion, our LTI Provider plugin is a hugely exciting feature for anyone interested in using Pressbooks content inside of a Learning Management System (a common desire for teachers, both in K-12 and higher ed settings). Our plugin is now on version 1.1.2, released in November (changelog). In Q1 2019, we plan to pursue official IMS Global certification against both the LTI and Thin Common Cartridge standards.
In 2018 we also developed and released two plugins that enable single sign-on for common authentication systems used in higher education. These integrations allow log in to Pressbooks networks using using their institutional NetID and password as login credentials (authenticating through either CAS or SAML2).
- In May, we released the stable version of our SSO plugin for CAS (Central Authentication System). Our work on this plugin was funded by Rutgers University Libraries. This plugin is now on version 1.1.1.
- In late July, we also released the initial version of our SSO plugin for SAML2 (Shibboleth). This plugin is now on version 0.0.5.
These SSO plugins are now available on Gold PressbooksEDU networks with a one-time configuration fee.
In April, our lead developer Ned Zimmerman published a helpful introduction to Pressbooks themes on our open source blog, and in July he did the same for Buckram, “a set of styled components for book theming, with corresponding markup, that can be customized with SASS variables,” which we released in an initial stable version that same month.
While it’s largely invisible to most end users, the work we did in 2018 to develop and release Buckram is important because it is provides the foundation for some really exciting theming and customization possibilities for Pressbooks. Buckram is what enabled all of the new theme options that we introduced in Clarke 2.0, for example. In 2018, we converted a batch of Pressbooks themes to use Buckram [Andreessen, Asimov, Jacobs, McLuhan, Andreesen, Dillard, Christie, and Baker], and development work on Buckram continues apace (it’s now at version 1.2.1), with many more theme conversions planned for 2019.
In the course of researching and writing this two part series, my already considerable esteem for my new Pressbooks colleagues grew enormously. I hope that you’ll agree that 2018 saw really significant improvements in Pressbooks as a software product and a community. If you want to know more about what we’ve got planned for the first few months of 2019, we’d invite you to take a look at our published Q1 roadmap and give us your feedback.