Dr. Tony Bates shares insights on writing an Open Textbook in 2014 – Teaching in a Digital Age

First of Tony Bates 2014 series of “Open Textbook” Blog Posts, February 2, 2014

Writing an open textbook: tracking an author’s perspective

Writing an open textbook: tracking an author’s perspective

February 2, 2014 by 7 Comments

Image © to thePC, 2014

Image © to thePC, 2014

One of the key developments in online learning is the open textbook. These are textbooks that are published and available for free. This is one of the most direct ways to bring down costs to students, saving in many cases at least $1,000 per student per year, often much more.

What’s involved in writing for open publishing?

A big challenge though is to get authors to write an open textbook. There is no direct financial reward, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a much higher level of risk than going through commercial publishers. Who will read it? Will it be accepted in the academic community? Will it have as much influence?  And a very practical question: if I do decide to do an open textbook, how do I do this? What do I need to know? Who can help me? How do I preserve the integrity of the book if people can just copy or alter what I’ve written?

These are questions that I have been struggling with. I am planning to write a textbook, a guide, for faculty and instructors, on teaching in a digital age. I have decided – for reasons that I will describe in another post – to not only make it an open textbook, but to try to ensure that it is designed to fully exploit the affordances of open publishing, and to practice in the design of the book what I am preaching in the text.

Tracking progress

In the spirit of open-ness, I plan to share this journey through a series of blog posts that tracks my progress, my questions, the answers I find, and I also hope to encourage others to help me as I do this. Here are some of the issues I expect to address in subsequent posts:

  • the pros and cons of open publishing, and why I decided to go ‘open’
  • my vision for an open textbook and how it differs from a traditional book. (I suspect this will not only be practical, but also raise questions about the concept of a book in the 21st century, and the boundaries between electronic books, blog posts and wikis, and online courses)
  • what format should I use for writing and/or publishing the book? What exists at the moment? What are the limitations of the current technologies for open textbook publishing?
  • what editorial or writing processes should I go through?Crowd-sourcing of content? Instructional and graphic design? An  independent online editor? Formal external review?
  • what unexpected problems or challenges do I run into along the way? What unanticipated opportunities or benefits do I discover?
  • what resources are there available to help those who want to author an open textbook?
  • how do I market the book? What works and what doesn’t?
  • how do I track the use of the book? How well is it received, as much in terms of format as content? How do I find this out?
  • what are the real costs of open publishing? Is there a sustainable business model?
  • would I do it again? What would I recommend to other authors who are thinking of open publishing?

Why me?

I have some advantages in doing this:

  • I’m an experienced writer, with more than a dozen commercially published books behind me. I can afford to take the risk. I don’t need the money and if it falls flat it will be disappointing but not a disaster for my career, nor, I hope, for my reputation, nor particularly, for open publishing, since there will be better ways to approach it than the way I did, as open publishing is still in the very early stages of development
  • I don’t anticipate the writing is going to be a problem. I pretty much know what I want to write, why I want to write the book, and the target audience. I can therefore spend more time on the format and the how of open publishing
  • I’m stopping all paid professional work from April, so I can concentrate on the book
  • I have a good background in instructional design, so I can push the boundaries in trying to match the format to good educational practice
  • if the open format doesn’t satisfy me or my readers, I can always go back to a commercial publisher; the text after all will still be there, and at least legally, I will still own the rights, as it will have been be protected by a Creative Commons license
  • I have a good network of friends and colleagues who can help me – and have offered to do so. I’m very fortunate to be located here on the west coast of Canada, close to the headquarters of the Creative Commons and the British Columbia open textbook project.

I am not alone

With regard to the latter, I’ve already had good advice from Paul Stacey, Creative Commons, and BCcampus, which is leading British Columbia’s open textbook project, is also providing advice and support. Contact North in Ontario is interested also, and may be able to provide support in areas such as marketing.

I plan to extend this network as the project proceeds, starting with the Open Textbook Summit on April 16th and 17th at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre in Vancouver.

I’m also hoping to draw on your knowledge and experience, the readers of this blog, if you are willing to share. So advice, constructive criticism and just good plain comments will always be welcome.

Next up

Why I decided to try ‘open’ publishing.



  1. Don Gorges says:

    __This is very exciting news, Tony. Certainly your expertise on this topic is of great interest to many of us and we can relate to the great questions you’re asking yourself. I’m sure you can count on your followers to weigh-in when it’s relevant – You likely know that CC licenses are not revocable so I wondered about this comment – “if the open format doesn’t satisfy me or my readers, I can always go back to a commercial publisher”. __ Wishing you all the best with your project.

    • Hi, Don
      As a result of your comment I did contact Creative Commons and here is what they said:
      When you put a Creative Commons license on a work it is irrevocable.
      Once you release your work with a Creative Commons license you can not retract the license and stop it from being used under the terms it was originally released. However, .. [as] the copyright holder you are always free to do whatever you want with your book including having it published by a commercial publisher.

      So you and I are both right. The issue is though whether a publisher will want to publish a book commercially if it is also available free through a Creative Commons license. In practice though it is unlikely that I would get as far as publishing it as an open textbook, then withdrawing it, although chunks of it may be already available under an Creative Commons license. But this is part of the reason for undertaking this project – to flush out these issues, so I really appreciate your comments and John Nixon’s on this.

  2. An interesting project that I hope to follow through your blog. Like the previous commentator I also raised my eyebrows over your optimism about being able to reclaim copyright over text you have once published under a CC licence. I did not know that was a possibility. I’m relatively new to distance teaching – and am co-writiing material (I don’t feel happy calling it a textbook) for adult learners of English in Sweden. But I’m employed to do this. I can’t see how a freelancer writing an open textbook could hope to put bread in his (or her) mouth. Though I’m interested to be enlightened. (And I’m glad you are making the experiment, not me!) Good luck.

  3. I have been struggling to write a second edition of my 2006 book ‘Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning’
    In the process of updating the book content I have been writing papers incorporating my updated deliberations, two published last December, in Educational Media International (EMI) and Journal of Visual Media (JVC),
    Two more pending, one maybe for BJET and one for EMI. However, the one for BJET is over 11,000 words so I doubt BJET will want it (or any other journal, although JVC did publish my 10,000 word paper).
    Anyway, to get to the point, when I complete the update of my book, will the original publisher object if I publish as an open textbook?
    Who knows how different it would need to be to avoid original publishers’ copyright infringement.

    • Good comments, Jack. Yes, authors need to be very careful when signing agreements with commercial publishers who sometimes insert clauses that attempt to bind you to all future work that you do.
      Fortunately for me, this book is quite different from any of my previous books, although it is almost impossible not to include some material published in previous books. Nothing is THAT new!

  4. raj dhanarajan says:

    Dear Tony,

    I am so delighted that you are doing this; there is nobody more thoughtful and insightful on the subject especially from the perspective of lower income environments, than you [at least amongst those of my vintage]. i look forward to reading your book as i do reading through your blogs periodically.

    Wish you well.


– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/02/02/writing-an-open-textbook-tracking-an-authors-perspective/comment-page-1/#comment-438364

Why I decided to try open publishing

February 4, 2014 by 2 Comments

Open publishing word tag

In an earlier post, I announced that I was going to write a textbook for open publishing and track my progress through a series of blog posts. In this one I examine my initial thinking.

Deciding to go for open rather than commercial publishing was not an easy decision, and I am still open to changing my mind if I run into too many problems. But here are the pros and cons that influenced my decision.

The pros of commercial publishing

I have experience of being published before by two major international publishers. Here are some of the benefits (in order of importance to me):

  • professional editorial support. In general the publishers provided me with excellent editors to work with. They managed the whole process from book proposal through text writing to feedback to copy editing to external review to actual publishing. One publisher in particular was particularly good at this. I did three books with them, different editors each time, and the whole process was very professionally managed. In one case the editor suggested that whole sections of a book contributed by a co-author should be replaced (reinforcing my own view), which helped me out of the very difficult position of criticizing a colleague’s work. In another case I needed professionally developed graphics and the publisher handled this, including the cost, in a very satisfactory way. The copy editing was sometimes a challenge, as one of my publishers is American, and there were often conflicts over spelling and the use of certain expressions that are common in English English but not American English. Generally though these were not serious and compromises were usually found. A major part of the market in terms of size is the USA, so the writing has to take account of that. Particularly for a new author, this editorial support is extremely helpful and important;
  • quality feedback. Normally, the text goes out for review before publication to three independent reviewers. I have found this feedback tremendously helpful in the past. The publisher doesn’t give much in the way of incentives to reviewers (a small honorarium or several other books that they publish) but I’ve always found the external reviewers thorough, constructively critical and very helpful;
  • money. Although, writing for a niche market, I don’t have big sales, the books provide a steady income through royalties. I was getting 12% on my later books, bringing me around $5 a sale, or between $2,500 – $10,000 a year over several books (more in the years immediately following publication, less in later years, but one book in particular started slowly but ten years later is still producing a steady income as it has been adopted as a required text book by a number of instructors.) I’m not getting rich, but it is a handy, taxable supplement to my main employment income;
  • recognition. This one is difficult to measure, but both are recognized quality publishers, they have a strong review process before accepting publication, so it probably does help in terms of status and promotion to be published by a quality publisher;
  • niche marketing. All my books have been published as part of a series with a common theme. This enables them to be directed at a specific market, and it allows the publishers to develop an extensive list of potential readers from the purchase of other books in the series. This also helps me as an author, to know who I am writing for.


The cons of commercial publishing

This has changed over time. Whether it’s because I’m more experienced or whether it’s because the industry has changed, the cons have become stronger more recently:

  • marketing – or lack of it Both publishers, but one more so than another, have been dreadful at marketing my books, especially in recent years. Publishers ask you to provide long lists of journals, professional societies, media outlets, etc., that can be used to promote the book. Fair enough, but then they don’t follow up. Both my publishers failed to send out review copies to the 10 key journals I identified for my last two books. Publishers want me to take copies of books to conferences to market them. I have a whole loft full of books I’ve ordered to be delivered at conferences, then haven’t been able to sell – I had to pay for both the books and the shipping. Poor marketing is not what you would expect from international publishers. The main value of a publisher to authors is their know-how in marketing. But at least for books in a niche market, publishers basically expect authors to do their own marketing. Electronic publishing (more than half my sales are now e-copies) has just made publishers lazy (and greedy – the price is the same as a hard copy). The struggle over marketing through a commercial publisher, more than anything, has made me think about open publishing – I’m going to have to do the marketing myself in any case;
  • royalties. At least I get royalties. Some publishers, such as IGI, won’t pay anything. Others ask authors to pay to get published (and some authors are desperate enough to do this). But 8-12% is not a fair return any more on what is often many months, sometimes years, of hard work. If publishers did more to actively market books, then it might be more acceptable, but at this point in time, 8-12% is a really unfair distribution of revenue. Publishers have for far too long traded on the need of academics to get published;
  • failure to change the book format. Commercial books still have the format of the sixteenth century. They may be  typeset electronically, they may be available for downloading online, but the format is still the same as books from the Guthenberg Press. One example: knowing that most of my sales of my last book would be electronic, I peppered the text with embedded urls, so those downloading the text electronically could just click on the text to get the link. At copy editing stage, all the urls were stripped out. No matter how much I ranted and raged, it could not be changed because it was company ‘editorial style’. I had to build a separate web site (batesandsangra.ca) for the book at my own expense, to support the book. I am hoping, with open publishing, to be able to exploit the interactiveness and dynamism of web publishing.

Will open publishing be any better?

Well, we’ll see, but here are my main reasons

  • I have to walk the talk. The content of my book is about teaching in a digital age. Therefore the format needs to enable me to practice what I will be preaching. There is nothing as powerful as a good example, and the book itself needs to be an example of the benefits of digital teaching. So this means, yes, embedded urls, but much, much more (more on this in my vision for the book, which will be another post). I don’t think commercial publishers are anywhere near ready to support this kind of approach to book publishing (if so, please contact me with an offer in the 50% royalty range – just kidding);
  • proof of concept Open textbooks are in their infancy. Like many new media, most still reflect the format of the old medium, print publishing. Many open textbooks at the moment are just that: a (free) electronic version of a text designed for printing. What should an open textbook look like? What’s involved in radically redesigning an open textbook? This seems to me to be a very interesting and important research and development question to work on;
  • collaboration and crowdsourcing There are many people now teaching innovatively and in ways that exploit digital media. If I follow an open approach to writing and publishing, to what extent can I successfully draw on others to provide content, examples and feedback. Won’t it be a better book if I have many collaborators/contributors, rather than to try and do everything myself?
  • the world is changing I may be getting money now from commercial publishing – but for how much longer? My own view is that commercial academic print-based publishing will be dead within ten years. It’s an unsustainable business that has failed to adapt fast enough to changing technology. This is not to say there is a sustainable business model yet for open publishing either, but I will wager that one will be found more quickly than a rescue plan for commercial publishing;
  • knowledge should be free This is the most compelling reason for me. Can we find a sustainable way to produce original high quality content that can be made available free of charge? I have had great fortune not only to be educated in public schools and universities, but also to work in them. Just consider this project as a rather tiny attempt at giving back.



  1. Charles Oppenheim says:

    Useful piece! Another downside of commercial publishing is price setting. My latest book is priced far too high in my view and I have no doubt that this will affect its sales. I’m not much bothered about the lower resulting royalties, but am bothered by the failure of the book to get a wide readership.

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/02/04/why-i-decided-to-try-open-publishing/

My vision for an open textbook

February 18, 2014 by 14 Comments

The False Mirror, Renée Magritte, 1898-1967

As I announced in an earlier post, I’m planning to explore the idea of writing and publishing an open textbook, on the topic of teaching in a digital age. I set out the reasons why  in another earlier post.

Today I want to set out what my vision is for this open textbook. I want to do this now, before I start, as a sort of checklist or rubric against which to judge the final product. However, before I go any further, I want to point out that this is a personal vision for what I want to do. There are innumerable alternative visions one could quite legitimately have for an open textbook that would be quite different from mine. So here goes:

The vision

  • the book is about different approaches to teaching in a digital age, with practical guidance
  • the book is aimed mainly at faculty and instructors in colleges and universities, but designed in a way that will also appeal to many in the k-12 sector, and also to senior administrators
  • it will draw on a wide body of research and experience in the use of technology for teaching in post-secondary education and my own experiences in teaching online
  • I will try to get selected colleagues and experts in the field to participate/help, if they will accept my overall editing role
  • the drafts will be ‘tested’ openly before a final, formal peer review of the whole book
  • the first complete version of the book will be ready by December 2014
  • the book itself will be a model for open textbook publishing, incorporating many of the design principles of ‘good teaching’ – such as active and social learning, use of video and audio, crowd-sourcing, remixing and adaptation – within the open text format, as far as I can stretch it with existing technologies and services
  •  it will be preferably free, but certainly at as low a cost as possible to those who want to read it, and easily accessible in whole or in parts. The goal is zero or low cost within financial sustainability (i.e. all necessary costs are recovered in some way, except my time, which will be free – but tracked!)
  • the book will be dynamic, changing over time as the world around it changes; this means finding a way to keep the text going even after I have gone

I will treat it as an R&D project, where I track and evaluate obstacles, solutions, actual costs, partners/helpers/resources, resulting in a short guide of what to do and what not to do when writing an open textbook, all shared on an ongoing basis through this blog.

Your input/comments welcomed

How does this compare with your vision (or understanding) of an open text-book? What have I missed? Is there something in the vision I should drop right now!


In about a couple of weeks, I’ll produce my first draft of a rough proposal for the content of the book, which will give readers of this blog more to chew on than ‘an airy-fairy, worse than Mary’ vision statement, as one of my British friends would say.



  1. Tony –

    the vision matches my thoughts of open, but I would also highlight the hyperlinked aspect, meaning that the book takes you places… to different resources, to possibly distinct streams of information that are also dynamic. This in my view fulfills your last point about dynamic in a broader way. Not only the text is updated, but the streams of other channels that connect with the book might change constantly. This seems to me as the organic aspect of such endeavor, which could bring enormous value.

    Question: how would this be different than a wiki?


    • Thanks, Stella – yes, definitely hyperlinked, but then I need to think about how to maintain currency.

      The difference between an open textbook and a wiki is something I’m going to have to work out. I suspect it’s going to be determined by things such as structure and editing capabilities.

      Thanks for the comments – these are just the kind of questions I will be exploring.

  2. Check out http://www.ck12.org. We have published over 150 open textbooks in K-12 math and science over the last 7 years. We’ve powered through many of the challenges in producing high quality, re-mixable materials. We’d be happy to share our experiences. Feel free to email me.

  3. It sounds great! If it takes the form of a tightly edited wiki, readers could have the option of printing the latest updated version by using the https://pediapress.com service for instance. Articles and/or the whole book could also be translated and printed in different languages.

  4. Tony, I really like what you have written here, however, it less about vision than goals, what is your vision? In the best of all worlds, what would you like to accomplish here? Is there an impact or change you are seeking to promote?

  5. This sounds like a terrific idea, and you are certainly well placed to initiate and oversee such a project.

    My first thought was that the use of the term “textbook” could limit what it becomes (as metaphors often do). But then, after reading Stella’s comment above regarding a wiki, I think the use of a familiar term might be helpful. We use wikis and textbooks in very different ways and contexts. The word “textbook” suggests what it does, or what it affords, as much as it tells us what we are expected do with it. As they say, don’t think about the future of the book, think about the future of reading — and writing, and publishing. But we need a bridge to the future if we want to get there as well as describe it, and metaphors can serve as that bridge.

    A useful open textbook would sit somewhere between a public tweet and the internet — not too small, not too big; just right! But just right for what? The scenario planning would have to include possible users/contributors and uses in different (and changing) contexts.

    One way to ensure that an open textbook is used is to invite early adapters from the target markets (teachers, tertiary academics, students) to assist in the project by way of contribution, suggestions, advice, etc. (as you are doing here). Whatever the outcome turns out to be, the process of getting there (which would, itself, be worth documenting) is likely to be a worthwhile experience for all who are involved. No doubt, someone will think of the #MOOCMOOC equivalent of the #OpenTextBook — the meta #BookOfOpenTextbooks, or the #OpenBookCookBook (or the #OBCB).

    In your Feb. 2 post, you mentioned an Open Textbook Summit on April 16th and 17th at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre in Vancouver. It would be great if others could take part remotely, even if it’s by way of archived material, linked blog posts and a live twitter chat (storified afterward, of course!). The record of the proceedings of such events also provides opportunities to test different formats and technologies. Iteration is cheaper and safer than the big bang approach. Small pieces, loosely joined. Make no large plans (Daniel Burnham, revised).

  6. John Rodgers says:

    An open textbook is a great idea. I have taught grade 11-12 mathematics and science on-line for several years now, developing materials on the fly and lamenting the dearth of free, open, flexible and truly reusable resources. I have adopted one open textbook in this period, although I frequently review many.

    Your vision matches mine.

    My recommendation would be to keep the data, design and technology separated as much as possible. Stick to HTML5 and maintain the textbook in a code repository that allows collaboration and forking (such as github, google code).

  7. I am intrigued by your goal of making this open eTextbook an exemplar of what can and should be done. I tried to do this with my own most recent digital book, “The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education” which is available only in the iBookstore (see: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/coming-epublishing-revolution/id579466573?mt=11) because I chose to create it with iBooks Author and give it a non-zero price ($0.99).
    These choices were a good fit for my goals. I wanted to show how rich and interactive an eTextbook could be rather than just talk about it in the abstract. I wanted readers to make some small commitment to actually read the book and consider its arguments so decided against free. Finally, the iBookstore enables revision not unlike software. My eTextbook is in version 1.2 and 1.3 is currently being hammered out. These will all be free upgrades.
    I am eager to learn how you will approach these early decisions.

    • Wonderful, Frank – I will definitely take a look at your book and look forward to learning from it. This conversation itself is an example of the benefits of open-ness – for none of my previous books did I get this kind of help before I had even started writing!

  8. Hi Tony,
    Like the others I also think this is a great idea. I agree with Rob Staby, and believe that the issues and questions raised by the other may well fall into place once you have articulated the vision. As Rob asks: what would you like to accomplish here? Is there an impact or change you are seeking to promote?
    Would love to be involved!

  9. Ravi Limaye says:

    At the outset hello from a online learning enthusiast and now a researcher. “Kudos for the OPEN BOOK”. I would love to get involved. The following is also suggested:
    1. Case study of digital learning which depicts EVOLUTION from novice, intermediate digital teaching to advanced digital teaching.
    2. It can also include “Change in Mindset” for content providers and success stories of some content providers and thinkers like”YOU”
    My background: Masters in Technical Education, tried one course successfully for post graduate students in NITTTR ( National Institute of Technical Teacher Training and Research), a Faculty Trainers, involved in Quality Improvement programs for Faculty, wikieducator user expo award winner march 2012…. a LIFELONG LEARNER in SPIRIT and ACTION
    I would love to be involved in full spirit of advocacy of Open Education

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/02/18/my-vision-for-an-open-textbook/

Getting started in writing an open textbook

March 3, 2014 by 15 Comments


What format?

This week saw further development in my odyssey to write my first open textbook. I met with the very helpful people at BCcampus who are managing British Columbia’s open textbook project, Mary Burgess and Clint Lalonde. I had a simple question:

‘How do I start?’

In particular, I wanted to know in what format I should start writing. Should I use Word, or WordPress, or html (and if so, what form of html), or something else? Obviously I don’t want to have to move writing that I’ve carefully formatted in one format into another, possibly – no, almost certainly – having to reformat everything again.

Clint answered my question with another question: ‘What format do you want to publish it in?’ Apparently, there are several formats for open publishing, including html, pdf and e-pub. To make matters more complicated, some of the devices that are used for e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, require their own unique, proprietal formats. ‘But I want to publish an ‘open’ textbook!’ I cried. ‘It should be available in any format and work on any device.’ What a naive fool I am.

Since I want the book to be able to be annotated or re-mixed, I need to have it in a flexible format such as html, but I also want readers to be able to read it like a book if they wish, which would mean pdf or e-pub.


Fortunately Clint had a solution for me, not perfect but pretty good. If I use a derivation of WordPress called PressBooks, it will output in html, pdf or e-pub formats.

Now as an avid blogger I’m comfortable using WordPress, (which is easy-peasy to use) so that seemed a good solution, at least as a start. As well as writing, I can use the ‘Add Media’ function to drop in graphics, video or audio, as in WordPress (with the same limitations, as well).

What’s more, PressBooks is designed for book publishing, with a ‘layer’ that sets up the structure of the book, including spaces for ‘front matter’, such as a foreword and content list, separate areas to compose each chapter, and ‘back matter’. Even better, BCcampus is working to add new features to PressBooks (which of course is open source), such as a search engine (who needs an index if you can search the text directly?)

So off I went, typed PressBooks into Google search, clicked on the web site, and with a few clicks had registered my own open textbook within the PressBooks site, under the title ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Next steps

So now I’m ready to go. I’m still checking out features, such as whether it will work on mobile devices (looks like it will work on tablets), but so far, so good. I won’t start writing for a while, because I need to develop a proper book proposal (for myself at least), including an outline of content in the form of chapter headings and abstracts. This I will be sharing with you, as I need your input, but I can build the outline straight into PressBooks from the start.

At the same time I need to think about how to build in activities. I’m thinking at this stage of adding features mainly through url links from PressBooks to other features, or adding plug-ins to PressBooks as they become available from BCcampus and other developers. For instance, PressBooks doesn’t seem to have a feature yet that enables you to build conversations around the content, although it does have the usual comment feature.

There are of course many other possible ways to go. I will do another blog on open book publishers and the advantages/disadvantages of going through an open publishing company. But I was astounded at how easy it is to start with Pressbook. Watch this space to see if it continues that way – and thanks to Mary and Clint for great advice.

Advice or warnings welcomed

So if you have already used PressBooks or have decided to go another route, I’d love to hear from you – as would the many readers who have been encouraging me to do this.



  1. Wayne Mackintosh says:


    I’m really impressed by your open sharing of your experiences in authoring an open text book. Nice one!

    A minor point: Have a think about a consistent and scalable way of managing the attributions and licenses of the images (and other rich media) you plan to incorporate into your open textbook to facilitate downstream reuse and packaging. Check how the epub and html outputs deal with theses attributions when exporting your text.

    An ideal solution is one where you simply link to a url which hosts the image and corresponding metadata — and the open textbook software automagicaly handles the attributions of openly licensed objects using CC’s machine readable code. From memory, I don’t think PressBooks has that capability yet (although this may have improved since I last looked.)

    You’ll save a ton of time if you need to change how you are attributing images etc by sorting out a solution before you start authoring.

    • Hi, Wayne

      Many thanks for the really valuable advice. More for me to think about!


    • Hi Wayne,

      That is a great suggestion. You’re right. PressBooks doesn’t have that kind of capability yet.

      At BCcampus, we are using the WordPress plugin CC Configurator to add CC license information to the book, which also adds the embedded metadata to the book. But that only covers the actual book that is created. We are still manually adding in CC license information to the books when we use existing content, primarily images where we add the CC information as the image caption. We have also extended the CC Configurator plugin to add derivative information to the book when we have made a derivative copy of an entire work.

      So, for example, we are creating a derivative version of the OpenStax Intro to Sociology textbook. We have imported the book into PressBooks and are localizing it – going through the book and adding in Canadian specific content. At the footer of each page, we have altered the CC Configurator to add in the derivative information stating that our version of the book is a derivative of the OpenStax book, and the terms of the original license and the new, derivative license.

    • Wayne, do you know of an authoring tool that has that ability? To automatically pull and display CC licensed material that you use? I’d love to track it down and see if we could modify it for PressBooks.

      • Wayne Mackintosh says:


        Apology for the tardy response – I missed your question. I’m not familiar with a specific tool in the WordPress environment that solves the challenge. The only related technology I can think of is the OpenAttribute (browser plugin) http://openattribute.com/ which helps on the authoring side.

        In the Mediawiki environment we keep the metadata and licensing with the image page and when using the wiki –> print technology, attributions are handled automatically. In theory it should be possible to replicate that for Pressbooks?

  2. It’s our pleasure Tony! We’re learning as we go and your work will certainly add to that.

  3. Pressbooks is a great option. I wrote a white paper of sorts on e-textbooks a couple of years ago – the last two pages list different options for creating your own ebooks: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1me_5uK0uWDrs8fx5Yv5G8mnUklusHXE83nMxk_c4k9g/edit

    Such as BookType, Readium, Widbook, and other WordPress-based solutions like Digress.it and Commentpress.

    If you’d like any contributors to help out with your book, let us know.

  4. Hello Tony,

    Over the past few years I have been dabbling with making ebooks. Not too long ago I advised Jisc on how teachers could get started. You may find my assorted posts helpful http://www.zakmensah.co.uk/category/100-things/

    I would definitely suggest that getting the workflow right will pay off in the long run, test A LOT and be consistent. For example on a recent project, the writer wasn’t using headings and lists consistently so it took ages to check and recheck. Time that would of been saved if they’d thought about the whole project from the beginning.

    If you want to add interactions then this won’t work in all formats/devices so you should have a fallback for that too.

    You’ll also be interested in Craig Mod’s ‘post-artifact publishing’. Happy to help in anyway as i really enjoy your blog and its been helpful to me many times.

    • Many thanks for great advice, Zak – I will definitely follow up on your suggestions – much appreciated

    • Zak, your advice in your “Choosing the right ebook format” post (http://www.zakmensah.co.uk/2014/01/19/ebook-file-formats/) is bang on, and along the lines of what I was getting at when I answered Tony’s question with a question. The message to be as device agnostic is even more important when dealing with openly licensed books that allow for others to copy, reuse and remix. The reality is many platforms for authoring ebooks are proprietary and lock users into vendor specific software and applications (like, oh I don’t know, Apple’s iBooks Author).

  5. Does it allow you to seperate data and design?
    Can you get your data out?
    If you do get your data out, can you reuse it somehwere/anywhere else?
    If someone else wants to use your content, can they remix it easily? (assumung you are amenable)

    • Hi, John
      Good questions. On the data extraction, I don’t know, but will find out. If it’s straight semantic content that you mean by data, yes, under the copyright licensing agreement, that’s possible. If you mean data analytics generated by PressBook, that I don’t know, but would assume it’s possible as it’s open source.
      Re-mix is essential. At least one of the exporting formats will allow remix.
      Anyone else want to comment on this?

    • Hi John,

      To answer your questions:

      1) Yes it separates design from data. That is one of the powers of the tool. Write once, output into many different formats, including XHTML, ePub, PDF, MOBI, and a WXR file, which is a WordPress backup file.
      2) Yes. You can export your data out in any of the above formats.
      3) Yes. Theoretically, you could export your data as a WordPress backup file and import into any WordPress site.
      4) Yes, again using WordPress. But Tony could also make all of the versions of the book available and people could pick their foramt. For example, he could export an XHTML package as a zip file and make that available for others to use using an HTML editor.

      Hope that helps.


  1. […] met with Dr. Tony Bates a few weeks back to talk about open textbook publishing. Tony is looking to self-publish an open textbook and was looking for some advice on how to technically go about […]

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/03/03/getting-started-in-writing-an-open-textbook/

What I learned from the Open Textbook Summit

April 23, 2014 by 3 Comments

Paul Stacey MC-ing the Open Textbook Summit

BCcampus (2014) Five lessons learned at the Open Textbooks Summit Vancouver BC: BCcampus

BCcampus organized an open textbook summit again this year (the first one was last year). I attended, because I’m writing my own open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ BCcampus has published its own blog post on the lessons learned, but I came away with something different, from a potential author’s perspective.

1. Open textbooks are gaining momentum.

There were two Ministers of Advanced Education present, one from BC and one from Saskatchewan. This is because the three western Canadian provinces (BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan) have signed a New West Partnership which includes collaboration on and sharing of open textbooks (Saskatchewan’s participation interestingly was initially driven by pressure from students.)

Last year there were 30 participants at the Open Textbook Summit, this year 130, including David Wiley, representatives from Open Stax, librarians, Barbara Illowsky, an author of an open textbook on comparative statistics, and senior university administrators and faculty in BC who were incorporating open textbooks in their teaching.

Currently, BC has 19 open textbooks available for large enrollment courses, with another 28 being ready in September this year, and another 20 by September 2015. So the supply side is really ramping up in western Canada and government is getting behind it in a big way.

2. There is a clear need for open textbooks.

Kim Thanos from LumenLearning pointed out that textbook costs have increased by 6.8% compared with a cost of living increase of 3.8%. 60% of students at some point during their program do not buy a recommended textbook because of cost, and 31% of students avoid certain courses because of the high cost of textbooks. Open Stax with just 11 open textbooks in 18 months has reached 600 schools/institutions, almost 100,000 students and saved students  $9.3 million in textbook costs.

3. The supply and the demand from students is coming – but where is the adoption by faculty?

Adoption by faculty and instructors remains a major challenge. Diane Salter from Kwantlen Polytechnic University stated that there needs to be an institutional strategy for open textbooks and open educational resources, to raise awareness and get buy-in from faculty. Takashi Soto, an instructor also from Kwantlen, pointed out that with the ability to edit, remix and delete, he can move an open textbook that initially gives him 85% of what he wants to 95%.

But still many faculty are suspicious of the quality of open textbooks or are just not aware that there are suitable open textbooks available for their courses. Open textbooks do not have the marketing clout of commercial textbook publishers. But I also have to say that there is still a certain evangelicism around open textbooks and OERs which I think puts off many faculty. Faculty need to take some ownership of the process of selection, adaptation and implementation if open textbooks are to be adopted on a larger scale. (See Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani’s excellent post on some of the reasons for the slow adoption by faculty.)

4. Open textbooks have their own pedagogy.

Most open textbooks today remind me of the movies at the turn of the century. Movies then mainly looked like recorded music hall acts. Cinema needed a D.W. Griffith to recognize the potential of the medium. Most open textbooks look just like commercial printed textbooks; static, lots of print, some graphics, but no animation, video, audio, learner activities or feedback built in.

David Wiley, as always, was very interesting on this topic. He pointed out that opening up student activities beyond the classroom or campus and sharing and collaborating with students on the development and production of content enables quality improvements and more transparency in the teaching (which may explain some of the resistance by many faculty).

I am still struggling, as I write my own open textbook, with the issue of when an open textbook moves from being a ‘book’ to a ‘course’, as one builds in more opportunities for ‘expert’ and ‘student’ contributions to the content, and more links and activities around the content.

5. The technology is still crude

Because the current technology ‘model’ for open textbooks is still based on printed books, the functions that enable more open collaboration, remix and re-use are still very crude. PressBook is a useful adaptation of WordPress, but it lacks many features that I feel I need as an author.  BCcampus has developed a plug-in called PressBook Textbook that has or will have features such as enabling better quality tables and math equations to be easily incorporated, but I’m still trying to work out how to download/add it to my version of PressBook (this is probably due more my technological naivity). Trying to manipulate graphics or images is also very clunky. So all the features that an author needs to create an open textbook that goes beyond a simple text still need more work.

More fundamentally, I’m still struggling with how someone else can take what I’ve written and incorporate it in their own work in an easy and transparent manner, without destroying the integrity of the original. How do I track the changes and variations that others have made? How can I keep the book dynamic – even after I’m dead? How many versions of the book should there be, and how will readers be able to judge which is ‘authentic’ or reliable?

These are interesting questions that I will continue to explore as I develop my open textbook. In the meantime, the Open Textbook Summit was very helpful as I start out on this journey.



  1. Has github been looked at to provide the infrastructure for managing open textbooks? Paired with an author friendly front end, would seem ideal…

  2. Halfway through my semester in college I’ve noticed an increase in the amount of students buying used textbooks, I’m sure this is why – thank you for sharing the information.

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/04/23/what-i-learned-from-the-open-textbook-summit/#sthash.l4HXhnZW.dpuf

What do instructors need to know about teaching in a digital age?

May 9, 2014 by 10 Comments

Jacques Cartier project 2

The next step on my road to writing an open textbook is to draft an overview of the contents of the book. Probably no stage of writing a book is more important than this and so I’m going to throw open the process and ask for your comments and suggestions.

Who is the book for?

I’m aiming mainly at faculty, instructors and teaching assistants in universities and colleges (including two year colleges). I’m particularly keen on reaching post-graduate students thinking of a career in higher education, and young lecturers and instructors who are fairly new, but I recognize that more experienced classroom instructors will also need some guidance and help as they move increasingly online.

I’d also like to get senior administrators such as Deans, Vice-Provosts, Teaching and Learning, and Provosts interested in the topics, as well as instructional designers and learning technology support staff, and the book could also be of interest to many k-12 teachers, but my main focus is on instructors in post-secondary education.


This post is essentially about content, but content and format are inextricably linked. I discussed possible formats in an earlier post, but I have described some of the activities I’m thinking of incorporating at the end of this post.

Outline of the book

This is very much a first draft and could change dramatically depending on the feedback I get. But you have to start somewhere.

i. Preface: what the book’s about; who it’s for; the format of the book; contributors

1. From periphery to mainstream: the evolution of technology-based teaching in higher education:  a very short history of educational technology; why change is necessary (needs of learners/needs of the economy/increasing cost of HE); challenges faced by instructors; this book aims to help.

2. The nature of knowledge and implications for teaching methods: Types of knowledge (epistemology) and implications for teaching.  Does technology change how we think or learn? Summary of learning theories (including connectivism). Teaching (and learning) styles. Competency based learning. Instructional design models (ADDIE, communities of practice, flexible design models). What we know about learning with technology (very briefly!)

3. Understanding technology Understanding media and technologies in educational contexts., including broadcast vs communicative; synchronous vs asynchronous; live vs recorded; real vs virtual. Locating different technologies within this framework, including lecture capture, LMSs, multimedia, simulations, remote labs, social media, virtual reality. Adaptive learning. Can computers replace teachers? A guide to media selection (might be moved to Chapter 6).

4. Modes of delivery: face-to-face; blended; hybrid; fully online. Open content and open learning (including issues of IP, OERs and MOOCs). Implications for the design of teaching. Impact on the campus/learning spaces.

5. Forms of assessment continuous vs summative; non-formal (feedback) vs formal (graded); multiple-choice; short answers; essays; project-work; e-portfolios; group work. Pros and cons and relationship to teaching goals. Lots of examples.

6. Nine (or 12) steps to quality teaching  with technology: identify your philosophy of teaching; what kind of course? teamwork; use of resources; master the technology; set appropriate learning goals; course structure and student activities; learner support; managing discussion; student assessment; course evaluation, including formative and role of learning analytics

7. Design templates and example module/course/program designs

Design models

  • traditional course (lectures, discussion, labs, etc.) with technology add-on
  • flipped classroom
  • ADDIE model
  • community/networked-based
  • flexible learning design (e.g. ETEC 522)
  • other?

Hybrid models

  • re-purposing (module, course, program) for different target groups
  • integrated design for multiple audiences (full-time, part-time, off campus)
  • adaptive learning models (e.g. maritime training)
  • can/should you mix and match approaches?

8. Strategies and planning for digital teaching: planning at the program level; roles for faculty, including content delivery and assessment, facilitator, co-creator of content, teaching consultant, managing a team including adjuncts and TAs; costs and time management; organization of resources (e.g. central or devolved); technology and educational productivity. Examples of good institutional strategies.

9. Faculty development (principles and examples) Why the current model is broken. Rewards and motivation for change. Types of faculty development: pre-service and in-service; just-in-time; brainstorming; mentoring; working in a team; mandatory courses. Examples of successful models.

10. Conclusion: What will the future look like? 12 rules of teaching in a digital age. Anything else I haven’t considered!


A. List of resources

Length: approximately 80,000 words/250 pages, with chapters of roughly 30 pages each.

Format: roughly 10 modules per chapter, each module = 30 minutes reading, with 30 mins activity = 10 hours study time per chapter = 100 hours for the book = one three credit course!

Two versions of the book: a straight read; one with in-built activities


  • non-graded  assessment questions for feedback purposes, including using all the various forms of assessment covered in Chapter 5
  • asynchronous discussion forums on set topics
  • project work for readers, including the design of a module, design of a course template, design of student activities, design of an assessment strategy
  • feedback and evaluation of other readers’ project work
  • guest lectures/interventions on specific topics
  • an ‘alumni’ network for readers of the book
  • developing a community of practice around the book
  • suggested assessment strategy if book used as a course.

Feedback really welcomed (I think)

I’m really welcoming feedback, and I’m also hoping for contributions and participation in the writing from others who are more specialized than myself. But in the end it’s my overall conception so I have to take overall responsibility for it. So here’s some of things I’m hoping to get from readers of this blog:

  • am I mad to open up this early stage of a book to the public? Will others steal my ideas?
  • have I got this completely wrong? Do instructors really need something completely different? Do we need instructors at all?
  • what important topics have I missed?
  • should I tie the book to its possible use as or within a course or should I just keep it as a book?
  • will instructors welcome activities or will they just skip them?
  • any other comments or suggestions

I’m actually going to be on a small island in the Mediterranean so you can be as rude as you like!

Milna, Brac, Croatia - where I plan to start writing the book



  1. Tracey Johnsoon says:

    Hi Tony, first of all thank you for your ongoing contribution to our profession. I am an Educational Designer with a HE institution working with Academics to design, develop and deliver their courses. I will share a recent experience which I think could be included in your book. We supported a Professor who delivered a workshop in a new collaborative teaching suite and one of the activities had participants using PollEverywhere to share responses which were displayed on screens around the room. This group work was going well with alot of discussion, debate and participants seeing what other groups added and commenting they hadn’t thought of that. Now here’s the interesting observation. The Professor stopped the activity and walked to one group and asked them to share with everyone what they were coming up with. My observation was the Professor did this because they didn’t have “control” of the room – they weren’t directing the learning – the students were doing it themselves. I think we need to help Academics appreciate that learning can occur without their direct intervention. If the learning is happening, let it continue.

  2. I wonder if it might be valuable to place the outline in a google doc where people might link to content they’ve already written on this topic. You might find resources to reference, or you might discover there’s an option for a 3rd volume that’s an edited collection of existing material that aligns with the outline topics.

    I’m writing something similar, but more of a personal journey to get to the end points you’ve got as topics here. I’ve done a lot with your 6, 8 and 9 topics. And I think 8 and 9 are where we need to be saturating education and edtech with content. This is where big change needs to happen and where resistance is strongest and support is weakest.

    Thanks for all you do to inspire!


    • Hi, Jen

      Many thanks for this. I did think of creating in Google Docs, but I’m using BCcampus’s variation on PressBooks, Pressbooks Textbook, which should allow me to share not only the outline, but also draft texts as I go, and enable suggestions, other materials, etc., to be included by others.
      One of the things I’m exploring is the balance between an organized, coherent narrative and the more dynamic, multi-perspective approach. I may well end up with two versions: mine and a ‘collective’.
      Really appreciate your comment

  3. A really interesting topic. I think there are more and more open resources around but always ways to show that ideas are your own, just by dating this here but for collaboration and input you do need to share some information. Something I come up against more and more lately are the techno-shy types. There are so many different tools out there that it’s hard to get your head around them if you are a little scared of technology. As well as some very opinionated people who have strong views that teaching used to be better before technology. It might be interesting to include ways to get buy-in from fellow lecturing staff and management.
    PS. going into winter in New Zealand I can’t think of anything more idyllic than writing a book in the Mediterranean. Look forward to reading more.

  4. Claire C says:

    Hi Tony,
    I am very excited to see this project develop. I am wondering if there is any place (in your or anyone else’s opinion) for a brief section explicitly discussing the other staff on campuses of higher ed who work to support faculty in these efforts? I realize you are directing your work at instructors, but I wonder how many might benefit from a discussion around the professional/managerial staff working in educational development, instructional technology, distance/extended/online/open education on campus?

    • Hi, Claire
      Excellent point. Yes, of course, the learning technology support staff are an essential group. However, many in this area will already be familiar with much of what I’ll be writing.
      The beauty of an open textbook though is that it can be used in different ways. One way would be as the basis for a course leading to a badge or certificate for those that do the accompanying in-text activities for instance, which might appeal to professionals in this area.
      Best regards

  5. Gary Miller says:


    This book is a great idea.

    One thing that I learned from working with traditional faculty who moved to the online environment is that some needed help finding ways to engage students in the online environment. As one Engineering professor told me, in a classroom, he could look into his students’ eyes to see if they were “getting” what he was saying. He had to find new ways to test that when he went online. In other words, how can you be sure your students understand the content? His response was to be much more interactive–to break content down into smaller segments, for instance, and ask questions more often. Especially as we move to flipped classroom environments, this issue may become more important.

    • Many thanks, Gary and great to hear from you. You’ve been one of the great pioneers of distance education.
      I fully agree that student engagement is the key to successful online learning (or any other form of learning for that matter), but in online learning it must be made more explicit. I’m hoping to have lots of examples of how to do this in the book – any examples will be welcomed (and acknowledged!).

  6. Antonia Makina says:

    I am a UMUC student who thoroughly appreciated Bates’s intention to write an open text book on‘What instructors need to know about teaching in a digital age’(learning curve: May16 2012). This topic is clearly trying to solve what we need to do now. A lot of talking has gone into what is meant by the digital age. However ‘What instructors need to know about teaching in a digital age’ has not been delved into. This probably leads us to relevant staff development strategies.

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/05/09/what-do-instructors-need-to-know-about-teaching-in-a-digital-age/

Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

June 11, 2014 by 1 Comment

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to: http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to tony.bates@ubc.ca .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.



  1. So great to see the progress on this, Tony! And thank you for being an early adopter on the BCcampus PressBooks platform. I should say that by default Pressbooks does allow the kind of commenting that you are looking for. But we made the decision to disable the comments on the BCcampus version of Pressbooks at least for the time being. In a nutshell, the books in our collection have no owners – there are no single faculty assigned as the steward of the books in our collection, and the PressBooks books could be used by dozens of faculty at the same time independent of each other. We thought that could set up the possibility for confusion, so we disabled the comments. You are a bit of an outlier in our collection because the book is your book. You are watching your comments and you could respond to them. So, apologies that in this instance our version of Pressbooks isn’t meeting your needs. But the reason lies with our internal decision not to enable comments and not with the platform itself.

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/06/11/opening-up-chapter-one-of-teaching-in-a-digital-age/

Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

September 9, 2014 by 5 Comments

© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last post I discussed the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for the ADDIE model.

What is ADDIE?

ADDIE stands for:


  • identify all the variables that need to be considered when designing the course, such as learner characteristics, learners’ prior knowledge, resources available, etc.  This stage is similar to describing the learning environment outlined in Chapter 5.


  • this stage focuses on identifying the learning objectives for the course and how materials will be created and designed (for instance, it may include describing what content areas are to be covered and a storyboard outlining what will be covered in text, audio and video and in what order), and deciding on the selection and use of technology, such as an LMS, video or social media


  • the creation of content, including whether to develop in-house or outsource, copyright clearance for third party materials, recording videos or audio, loading of content into a web site or LMS, etc.


  • this is the actual delivery of the course, including any prior training or briefing of learner support staff, and student assessment


  • feedback and data is collected in order to identify areas that require improvement and this feeds into the design, development and implementation of the next iteration of the course.

The interactive infographic above provides an in-depth, step-by-step approach to the design of learning, with lots of online resources to draw on. There have been many books written about the ADDIE model (see for instance, Morrison, 2010; Dick and Carey, 2004).

Where is ADDIE used?

This is a design model used by many professional instructional designers for technology-based teaching. ADDIE has been almost a standard for professionally developed, high quality distance education programs, whether print-based or online. It is also heavily used in corporate e-learning and training. There are many variations on this model (my favourite is ‘PADDIE’, where planning and/or preparation are added at the start). The model is mainly applied on an iterative basis, with evaluation leading to re-analysis and further design and development modifications.

One reason for the widespread use of the ADDIE model is that it is extremely valuable for large and complex teaching designs. ADDIE ‘s roots go back to the Second World War and derive from system design, which was developed to manage the hugely complex Normandy landings.

The Open University in the United Kingdom heavily uses ADDIE to manage the design of complex multi-media distance education courses. When the OU opened in 1971 with an initial intake of 20,000, it used radio, television, specially designed printed modules, text books, reproduced research articles in the form of selected readings that were mailed to students, and regional study groups, with teams of often 20 academics, media producers and technology support staff developing courses, and with delivery and learner support provided by an army of regional tutors and senior counsellors. Creating and delivering its first courses without systematic instructional design model would have been impossible, and in 2014, with over 200,000 students, the OU still employs a strong instructional design model based on ADDIE.

Although ADDIE and instructional design in general originated in the USA, the Open University’s success in developing high quality learning materials influenced many more institutions that were offering distance education on a much smaller scale to adopt the ADDIE model, if on a more modest scale. As distance education courses became increasingly developed as online courses, the ADDIE model continued, and is now being used by instructional designers in many institutions for the re-design of large lecture classes, hybrid learning, and for fully online courses.

What are the benefits of ADDIE?

One reason it has been so successful is that it is heavily associated with good quality design, with clear learning objectives, carefully structured content, controlled workloads for faculty and students, integrated media, relevant student activities, and assessment strongly tied to desired learning outcomes. Although these good design principles can be applied with or without the ADDIE model, it is a model that allows these design principles to be identified and implemented on a systematic and thorough basis. It is also a very useful management tool, allowing for the design and development of large numbers of courses to a standard high quality.

What are the limitations of ADDIE?

The ADDIE approach can be used with any size of teaching project, but works best with large and complex projects. Applied to courses with small student numbers and a deliberately simple or traditional classroom design, it becomes expensive and possibly redundant, although there is nothing to stop an individual teacher following this strategy when designing and delivering a course.

A second criticism is that the ADDIE model is what might be called ‘front-end loaded’ in that it focuses heavily on content design and development, but does not pay as much attention to the interaction between instructors and students during course delivery. It has been criticised by constructivists for not paying enough attention to learner-instructor interaction, and for privileging more behaviourist approaches to teaching.

Another criticism is that while the five stages are reasonably well described in most descriptions of the model, it does not provide guidance on how to make decisions within that framework. For instance, it does not provide guidelines or procedures for deciding how to choose between different technologies, or what assessment strategies to use. Instructors have to go beyond the ADDIE framework to make these decisions.

The over-enthusiastic application of the ADDIE model can and has resulted in overly complex design stages, with many different categories of workers (faculty, instructional designers, editors, web designers) and consequently a strong division of labour, resulting in courses taking up to two years from initial approval to actual delivery. The more complex the design and management infrastructure, the more opportunities there are for cost over-runs and very expensive programming.

My main criticism though is that the model is too inflexible for the digital age. Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever changing technologies, very diverse students, a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I would argue that while the ADDIE model has served us well in the past, it is too pre-determined, linear and inflexible to handle this type of learning. I will discuss more flexible models later in this chapter.

Over to you

1. Have I given enough information about what ADDIE is, by using the infographic, or do I need to cover this more fully in the text? Do I need to say something about rapid course development here?

2. What are your views on the ADDIE model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. Any suggestions about other, more flexible models that could be used?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture

Still to come:

  • Competency-based learning,
  • Connectivist models, including Communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of competency-based learning for teaching in a digital age.


Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Dick, W., and Carey, L. (2004). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Allyn & Bacon; 6 edition Allyn & Bacon

Morrison, Gary R. (2010) Designing Effective Instruction, 6th Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons



  1. Diane Gregory says:

    Finally someone has clearly identified the major weakness in the ADDIE approach. As a social constructivist online art teacher educator I concur with your criticisms. I can see you are working toward workable solutions. Thanks Tony.

  2. Jolanda Morkel says:

    Thank you for this valuable blog post. I have a problem with the ADDIE model too. I support your views but would like to add the following:
    – The “Design” stage as explained in the model, should perhaps be called “Problem Statement” or “Briefing”. “identifying the learning objectives for the course and how materials will be created and designed” does not fit the stage title “Design”. Design is a creative problem of formulating solutions to any given problem or challenge, in an innovative and sustainalble way”. “Design” cannot be just one of the stages, “Design” encompases the larger process.
    – The ideation stage is missing.
    – The (design) exploration stage is missing.
    – The focus is on product rather than process.

    • Excellent comments, Jolanda.
      As I mentioned, I think there needs to be a planning stage even before design, and I agree that the model isn’t really sequential but different parts of the process overlap and loop back in actual practice. I have seen learning objectives identified in the design stage for instance completely re-written once assessment questions have been developed!

  3. Paul Hibbitts says:

    Hi Tony,

    While I have participated in a lot of (mostly) successful team projects using ADDIE, I prefer a more iterative approach that is closer to many software user experience/UX design processes.

    For the past couple of years, I’ve been practicing and promoting SAM (Successive Approximation Model, http://www.trainingmag.com/content/criteria-ideal-instructional-design-process-model) as a possible alternative to ADDIE, which brings some aspects of a more Agile approach to the overall instructional design process.

    While I’ve been very happy with my own projects roughly based on SAM, I’d be very interested to hear about how the approach has worked for larger, team-based efforts.

    I’ve been enjoying and learning lots from your open textbook project!

    All the best,

  4. I addressed this issue in a paper a few years ago: http://www.guyboulet.net/site/docs/Rapid_prototyping.pdf.

    The main problem with ADDIE is that it is a cascading model where each phase depends on the results of the preceding phase, assuming that the deliverable of the preceding phase are complete and accurate.

    What if an assumption made in the analysis phase is incorrect and this leads to incorrectly targeted design and thus to development and implementation of a solution that aims at the wrong target? You might only find it out at the evaluation phase, at the end of the project.

    Because of that, I believe that iterative models such as SAM or Rapid Prototyping are more efficient for elearning development as they offer early detection and correction of problems.

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/09/09/is-the-addie-model-appropriate-for-teaching-in-a-digital-age/#sthash.MrpK3xvt.dpuf

Is the classroom model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

September 9, 2014 by Leave a Comment

© University of Science and Arts Oklahoma

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

What is to be covered in Chapter 6

This may change as I get into the writing but my plan at the moment is to cover the following topics:

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • Competency-based learning,
  • Communities of practice (inc. cMOOCs)
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

In this post I introduce the concept of a design model and discuss the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. My next post, which follows almost immediately, does the same for the ADDIE model.

Purpose of the chapter

At the end of this chapter the reader should be able to:

  1. Describe key models or approaches to the design of teaching and learning
  2. Analyse each model in terms of its value for teaching in a digital age
  3. Decide which model or combination of models will fit best with their own teaching
  4. Use the model as a basis for designing their own teaching

What is a design model?

By a design model, I mean the organized steps taken to convert a desired learning environment into teaching and learning activities. Project management is a typical example of a design model, in that it presents a framework for taking a plan or goal and turning it into action. In project management, there are certain steps to be followed which are relatively independent of whatever project is being implemented.

However, there are many different kinds of approaches to design implementation besides project management. I intend to examine several of the most common design models that can be used in teaching, and in particular to examine them for their suitability for teaching in a digital age.

The classroom design model

Classroom old 2

Some design models are so embedded in tradition and convention that we are often like fish in water – we just accept that this is the environment in which we have to live and breath. The classroom model is a very good example of this. In a classroom based model, learners are organised in classes that meet on a regular basis at the same place at certain times of the day for a given length of time over a given period (a term or semester).

This is a design decision that was taken more than 150 years ago. It was embedded in the social, economic and political context of the 19th century. This context included:

  • the industrialization of society which provided ‘models’ for organizing both work and labour, such as factories and mass production
  • the movement of people from rural to urban occupations and communities, with increased density resulting in larger institutions
  • the move to mass education to meet the needs of industrial employers and an increasingly large and complex range of state-managed activities, such as government, health and education
  • voter enfranchisement and hence the need for a better educated voting public
  • over time, demand for more equality, resulting in universal access to education.

The large urban school, college or university, organized by age stratification, learners in groups, and regulated units of time was an excellent fit for such a society. In effect, we still have a predominantly factory model of educational design, which in large part remains our default design model even today.

However, over the span of 150 years, our society has slowly changed. Many of these factors or conditions no longer exist, while others persist, but often in a less dominant way than in the past. Thus we still have factories and large industries, but we also have many more small companies, greater social and geographical mobility, and above all a massive development of new technologies that allow both work and education to be organized in different ways. This is not to say that the classroom design model is inflexible. Teachers for many years have used a wide variety of teaching approaches within this overall model.

I don’t want to devote much space to the classroom design model, as we are all so familiar with it, and there is so much invested in the ‘default’ model that it is impractical to rip everything up and start with something completely different. Nevertheless, we have at least the seeds of change already showing. ‘Flipped’ classrooms where students get lectures on video and come to class for discussion and the re-design of large lecture classes are moves to modify the default model, while fully online programs and MOOCs are a manifestation of more radical change by offering education at any time and any place.

The real danger though is that we fail to grasp the opportunities that are now available to us, because we are so comfortable and familiar with the classroom design model. Even worse is trying to force the old default model on to new developments, when what is needed is a totally different approach if we are to meet the needs of a digital age. I give two examples below of forcing new technologies into the old classroom design model.

Old wine in new bottles: classroom-type online learning

When commercial movies were first produced, they were basically a transfer of previous music hall and vaudeville acts to the movie screen. Then along came D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, which transformed the design of movies, by introducing techniques that were unique to cinema at the time, such as panoramic long shots, panning shots, realistic battle scenes, and what are now known as special effects.

Learning management systems

Most learning management systems, such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Moodle, are in fact a replication of a classroom design model. They have weekly units or modules, the instructor selects and presents the material to all students in the class at the same time, a large class enrollment can be organized into smaller sections with their own instructors, there are opportunities for (online) discussion, students work through the materials at roughly the same pace, and assessment is by end-of-course tests or essays.

The main design differences are that the content is primarily text based rather than oral, the online discussion is asynchronous rather than synchronous, and the course content is available at any time from anywhere with an Internet connection. These are important differences, and skilled teachers and instructors can modify or adapt LMSs to meet different teaching or learning requirements (as they can in physical classrooms), but the basic organizing framework of the LMS remains the same as for a physical classroom.

Nevertheless, the LMS is still an advance over online designs that merely put lectures on the Internet or load up pdf copies of Powerpoint lecture notes, as is still the case unfortunately in many online programs. Good online design should take account of the special requirements of online learners, so the design needs to be different from that of a classroom model.

Lecture capture

This technology, which automatically records a classroom lecture, was originally designed to enhance the classroom model by making lectures available for repeat viewings online at any time for students regularly attending classes – in other words, a form of homework. Flipped classrooms are an attempt to exploit more fully this potential, but the biggest impact has been the use of lecture capture for ‘instructionist’ massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX. However, even this type of MOOC is really a basic classroom design model. The main differences are that the classroom is open to anyone (but then in principle so are many university lectures), and MOOCs are available to unlimited numbers at a distance. These are important differences again, but the design of the teaching – lectures delivered in chunks – has not changed markedly.

‘Instructionist’ MOOCs have resulted in some important design changes to the classroom model, such as using computer-marked assignments to test students or give feedback, and the use of peer review (both often used also in physical classroom design of course), but the predominant design model of instructionist MOOCs is that of an admittedly massive classroom.

The limitations of the classroom design model

Old wine can still be good wine, whether the bottle is new or not. What matters is whether classroom design meets the changing needs of a digital age. Just adding technology to the mix, or delivering the same design online, does not automatically result in meeting changing needs. It is important then to look at the design that makes the most of the educational affordances of new technologies, because unless the design changes significantly to take full advantage of the potential of the technology, the outcome is likely to be inferior to that of the physical classroom model which it is attempting to imitate.

The second danger of just adding new technology to the classroom design is that we may just be increasing cost, both in terms of technology and the time of instructors, without changing outcomes. Thus even if the new technology, such as lecture capture and computer-based multiple-choice questions organised in a MOOC, result in helping more students memorise better or learn more content, for example, this may not be sufficient to meet the higher level skills needed in a digital age.

Education is no exception to the phenomenon of new technologies being used at first merely to reproduce earlier design models before they find their unique potential. However, changes to the basic design model are needed if the demands of a digital age and the full potential of new technology are to be exploited in education.

Over to you

1. Do I manage to make clear what I mean by design ‘models’? If not, how can this be made clearer – or is the concept not helpful in the first place?

2. Do you agree that the classroom design model is a product of the 19th century and needs to changed for teaching in a digital age? Or is there still enough flexibility in the classroom model for our times?

3. To what extent do you feel you have to teach in a certain way because of the classroom model – or are you able to work flexibly within this model?

4. Do you agree that LMSs are basically a classroom model delivered online, or are they a unique design model in themselves. If so, what makes them unique?

What’s next?

My next post looks at the appropriateness of the ADDIE model for teaching in a digital age.


– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/09/09/is-the-classroom-model-appropriate-for-teaching-in-a-digital-age/#sthash.wZ4t5S0b.dpuf

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age


September 15, 2014 by 2 Comments

Online student 2

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last two posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness of the classroom model and the ADDIE model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for competency-based learning model. (Some of this material has been published earlier by Contact North in its Gamechangers series.)

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Remote proctoring of exams


WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.

Over to you

I have been very gratified by the feedback and open-ness of many of the readers of this blog on my earlier drafts for this book. I do not feel I am an expert on competency-based learning, never having designed a course this way, so feedback and advice from more experienced practitioners will be particularly welcome. In particular:

1. I have focused mainly on the Western Governors design model for competency-based learning, which is entirely online. Do you know other models of designing competency-based learning that I should have included?

2. What are your views on the competency-based model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. What is the difference between a competency and a skill? Or is there no difference?

4. What key articles, videos or books on competency-based learning would you recommend?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • competency-based learning

Still to come:

  • Connectivist models, including communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches
  • Flexible design models
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of connectivist design models for teaching in a digital age.



  1. Peter Forrest says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    I am most interested in how learners develop proficiency in team-based or person-oriented competencies – collaborating with others; working in distributed teams; online communication skills and so on. These must be critical for employers as well.

    I think your definition of competency-based learning focuses on just one particular model of delivery (self-paced; working individually; mentor support). I find this very limiting as it omits these collaborative (or social) skills completely.

    I don’t see that this has to be the only model for competency-based learning, nor do I think that this form of learning necessarily has to suffer from the weaknesses you identify (although, as an aside, pretty much every approach to design works well with some learning environments and less well with others) or ignore the importance of social learning.

    I think we need a broader definition of competency-based learning and approaches to design that addresses the development of social and collaborative skills and competencies, using an approach that includes social and collaborative learning.

    • Great comments, Peter.
      I completely agree that there are many possible models of competency-based learning, and perhaps more importantly, there are many different ways to develop skills and competencies. The WGU model then is just one way. Collaborative online learning is another way, especially for developing the more academic or intellectual skills and competencies.
      But I think I also mentioned in the chapter that of course competencies can also be developed in a face-to-face or campus environment.
      This is one problem of trying to categorize different design models – they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, rarely exist in a ‘pure’ form, and are not dependent on a particular medium or technology. They are just all part of life’s rich pattern!

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/09/15/the-strengths-and-weaknesses-of-competency-based-learning-in-a-digital-age/

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

September 26, 2014 by 1 Comment

Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.


I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.


From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.


Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.



  1. Hi Tony,

    You have been a great (and very patient) early adopter of the technology and we are really grateful for your experienced eye working through the authoring process with us & providing us feedback.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the strongest feature of PressBooks (and one that I don’t think you have had the opportunity to explore yet) is that it provides flexibility for the student in how they want to use the content. The PressBooks output engine gives you a website version of the book, an epub, a PDF plus a number of remixable formats that makes the content portable for future remix. We try to put as few constraints on how the content can be used, and make it available at the end in numerous formats for both consuming and adapting. For example, the recently published Geography textbook is available in 9 different formats, all created from that single book. That was a major requirement of our project – make it as flexible as possible for students and for people who may want to remix these books in the future (and to make it truly work for faculty I would love to extend PressBooks to output a Word version of the book since that is, by far, THE remix tool of choice of most faculty).

    The distinction between an LMS and a textbook authoring platform was a concious decision. We didn’t want to remake an LMS, but we do want to have something that could integrate with an LMS (and if you look at some of the work being done by FunnyMonkey and David Wiley’s Lumen Learning on PressBooks you will see that they are developing the technical hooks via LTI integration that will hook PB into an LTI compliant LMS making it an extension of the LMS. This LTI integration is actually baked into WordPress and (for LMS’s that support LTI integration like Moodle), getting a book from PressBooks into an LMS shouldn’t be a huge technical issue. But, for now, that is a nut that we need help to crack.

    Indeed, all the issues you have identified are very solveable issues. But for an open source project to really succeed we need developers to help contribute. Our programmer, Brad Payne, has done wonderful work extending the platform, but he is only one developer. And only par time to our project. Now, Brad has also helped to nurture a burgeoning developer community, but it is really small right now.

    I don’t say all this to bemoan our situation. We are, indeed, very lucky to even have a developer who has the skills to be able to do all of this (and Brad has done all of this). But rather to make a point that educational technology needs to support a developer community. There are very few actual developers in higher ed institutions in the position to contribute to open source and open ed projects, and those resources are sorely needed if we are ever going to hope to develop the types of technical systems many of us so desperately want.

    So, if you know a developer who wants to help, send them our way :) https://github.com/BCcampus/pressbooks-textbook

– See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/09/26/writing-an-open-textbook-a-mid-term-report-on-the-technology/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s