July Office Hours Recap & Video: Updating Open Textbooks

Are you an instructor, staff member, or librarian using Open Textbooks at your institution? Do you want to know how you can keep this resource updated over the years? This month’s Office Hours session on keeping open textbooks relevant will help you do just that! Watch the video recording, or read a recap.

During this session of the monthly Office Hours event organized by the Open Textbook Network and the Rebus Community, special guests Lauri Aesoph, BCcampus; Shane Nackerud, University of Minnesota Libraries; and Kristen Munger, SUNY Oswego discussed the challenges of keeping Open Textbooks up to date.

Watch a recap of the session, or read the full summary below.

For host Karen Lauritsen, of the Open Textbook Network, the topic of updating Open Textbooks is especially pertinent to their Open Textbook Library initiative – which acts as a database for reviewed and published Open Textbooks. Hugh McGuire, founder of the Rebus Community, also emphasized the importance of revising open textbooks to ensure that they remain a relevant resource in the post-publication years.

Following a quick introduction to Rebus from Hugh, Karen invited our special guests to describe their experiences.

Lauri Aesoph, manager of Open Education at BCcampus, explained some procedures that they perform, beginning with a comprehensive record of their collection in an internal document. This document includes date of creation, the type of license, and more, and is accompanied by a versioning history page for each book. Next, Lauri says that each book is updated for minor corrections and revisions. At BCcampus, they keep a static copy of the book available for use, while also giving individuals access to different editions (American and Canadian, for instance). The original edition of the book is always available for reference if needed. Similarly, Karen said that the Open Textbook Library has a dark archive in DSpace. Lauri ended by describing how BCcampus regularly polls faculty and staff to find out gaps and areas of improvement in certain books, and use this feedback to move forward with other updates.

Shane Nackerud, technology lead at University of Minnesota Libraries, discussed the process of taking Open Textbooks and revising them in Pressbooks. UMN has published three new open textbooks in-house, and is currently working on five more books. Their decision to republish a book, and update it in the process, is based on the hit count or the popularity of the book in the Open Textbook Library database. They also check to see whether the content of the book, such as images, is openly licensed. Another means by which they have been able to build the robustness of the Open Textbook is to ask institutions for supplementary or ancillary materials, and make this available to instructors. So far, responses to these calls have been limited, with only one institution providing supplementary material, but Shane hopes this will pick up as OER becomes more popular. Shane explained that these materials are placed in a restricted Google Drive, and are only shared with a faculty once their affiliation is confirmed. Since this process might get cumbersome with time, Karen suggested Proola as an alternative tool.

Kristen Munger, associate dean in the School of Education at SUNY Oswego, brought the author and editor perspective to this process. In her work with other authors using the SUNY system, she has found that even the most minor things in an Open Textbook require maintenance – for example, hyperlinks. Dead links are not helpful to students or faculty using the textbook, and need to be checked regularly. Any errors that are also flagged once the textbook has been adapted is helpful for updating the book. Kristen acknowledged that the Open Textbook provides a lot of flexibility to preserve its lifespan, meaning that it can be updated more easily than a traditional print textbook. However, at the same time, this poses certain challenges: How do you label a new edition of an Open Textbook? How is a new edition different from a revision of the book? Can you easily identify where you are in the process of updating the book?

Karen directed some of Kristen’s questions to the other participants. Alina Slavik from OpenStax jumped in, saying that for them, revisions refer to errata changes, while major content changes warrant a new edition. Alina pointed to an errata tool, allows people to submit suggestions for correction, displays a public list of errata that have been spotted, and allows individuals to see how errors have been dealt with. OpenStax also provide release notes accompanying each PDF that documents the changes made to that revision or edition.

Another participant wondered how best to deal with dead links, and how often these need to be checked.  Alina suggested a program called Spider, that crawls through links monthly and notifies them when it catches a 404 error. Further, she says that OpenStax uses a redirect to an external link (eg.: http://www.openstaxcollege.org/l/24detplaceval), which means that they can update the link internally when needed without having to update the content. Regarding frequency, Alina added that the subject matter of a textbook is a good indicator of how often it needs checking. Kristen brought up the idea of having the author involved to care for the book, and implement changes like these, over a span of 5 years after the book’s release. Lauri said that BCcampus doesn’t have a system in place as yet, but just corrects the dead links as they are reported.

Other questions from participants included: How does an instructor ensure that students are using the most up-to-date version? Kristen said that instructors who are adapting the book can update it for their course, and in this manner, would be using the most “up-to-date” version. Lauri agreed, saying that it is up to the faculty member who adapts the book and in fact, this is a useful skill for an instructor to have. Participants asked if there are built-in versioning systems to track the life of an Open Textbook. Shane mentioned that an easier method of versioning is needed, and Hugh responded saying that a version control mechanism is in the works at Pressbooks, where the book’s metadata would capture and reflect information about its particular version.


The session concluded with the agreement that the driving force behind both the creation and upkeep of Open Textbooks are groups of willing and motivated people. It is critical to ensure the survival of Open Textbooks by working together, and thus ensure that OER creation is scalable in the long term. If you have any thoughts or resources you would like to share, please post them in the Rebus Forum.


Leave a Reply