Category: The Rebus Philosophy

Open is More Than A License: Why File Formats Matter for Revising & Remixing

I once wrote a 2500-word essay on why PDFs are terrible, so it’s safe to say that I have some thoughts about file formats (and also that I’m great fun at the right kind of parties). However, it’s also safe to say that not many people give file formats as much thought as I do. We probably collect quite a few of those who do in the OER community, but for anyone who doesn’t, here’s a little primer on why they’re important to what we do:

There is an ongoing conversation in the Open world about what being “Open” means beyond allowing cost-free access, from accessible language to inclusivity to leaving open unknown future uses of your work. In the educational context, we’ve talked about what it means to us here, and most famously, David Wiley has encapsulated “Openness” in OER in the 5Rs – the right to Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute content. Formats have big implications for all of these, and directly inform our approach to Openness at Rebus. Open content needs to do more than give permission to exercise the 5Rs (i.e. through open licenses); it also needs to offer the technical capability (and ease) to exercise them.

As an example, when it comes to revising and remixing, it helps if the content exists in a format that lends itself to editing. The Rebus Community is currently supporting a project that will see two OpenStax biology textbooks combined to create a new text. However, the books are only available in formats that don’t lend themselves to editing: web/HTML, PDF and OpenStax’s own format, CNXML. This means that before being able to work on the content, the team needs to figure out a way to turn one of those formats into something easier to work with.

BCcampus has been working on bringing the OpenStax books into Pressbooks (an open source book production software widely used for producing OER, including in the Rebus Press) and Rebus is working on converting OpenStax Biology in a similar way so it can be adapted (we’re currently doing this manually, but hope to build an automated process in the coming months).

While, in theory, we could have dropped the content into any editing software (e.g. Microsoft Word) for this current project, the advantage of Pressbooks is that it easily allows the work we do to benefit others; this, and many other Pressbooks books can be made available for download, in a range of different formats that each serve a different purpose, through a distribution option. Once activated, the distribution option automatically adds the most recently exported book files to the book landing page, where anyone can access them. The main formats available are:

  • PDF: This is best for print, and is preferred by some for digital reading (especially offline)
  • Ebook (EPUB and MOBI): Ebooks are another popular option for reading (but much less popular with those doing anything remotely technical with the files)
  • XHTML: The standardised nature of this format makes it very useful for moving content between systems & formats. HTML is the language the web speaks, and XHTML is the central source from which PDF and ebooks are created in the Pressbooks system.
  • Pressbooks XML: This is an extension of the standard WordPress XML output format, and allows a clone of the book to be uploaded to a new Pressbooks shell, with either all content or a selection imported. It makes revising and remixing in Pressbooks incredibly easy, with a new, editable version of a book able to be created in a matter of minutes.
  • OpenDocument Format (ODT): ODT is an open file format that is compatible with MS Word and similar word processors. While the ODT output produced by Pressbooks isn’t very pretty in terms of formatting, it does allow for content to be edited in a familiar system, which is sometimes a useful option.

One of our goals is to take the entire collection of OpenStax books and make them available in the Pressbooks format, so any Pressbooks-based network (, etc.) can host copy of the originals that can then be taken and adapted by downloading the XHTML, Pressbooks XML or ODT (with the disclaimers about formatting).

The OER refrain of not reinventing the wheel applies here, too — openness means that we share our work so that it doesn’t have to be replicated, and everyone can build on it. We usually think about this in terms of content and licenses, but we should also consider the practicalities of how we can (or can’t) work with that content. An open textbook that exists as a PDF available online and a Word document buried on someone’s computer just isn’t reaching its full potential!

We should also consider how this kind of openness applies to all the other work that goes into creating an open textbook. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do at the Rebus Community: engage with the people who are making open textbooks and leverage their experiences to create tools and resources that can be used by everyone in the community.

Want to be a part of it? Join the forum and sign up to one of our projects.

The distribution option is currently available or can be activated on any Pressbooks network except Infrastructure upgrades are in process in order to be able to support it at the scale required on the main network and it is expected to be available within the next couple of months.

The Rebus Mantra: If We All Chip In, the Effort Will Be Minimal and the Benefits Great

Before the Rebus Community was officially founded, Hugh McGuire wrote a post on Medium about the large-scale collaboration we hope to achieve around open textbooks. Hugh is no stranger to this kind of collaboration, having founded Librivox, a community of volunteers who crowdsourced the world’s largest collection of public domain audiobooks. In the post, he channels a quote by theology prof and techno-evangelist, A.K.M. Adam (AKMA):

“If we all chip in, the effort will be minimal, and the benefits great.”

With about 10 open textbook projects in the works, one of the things we’re trying to do is make it easy for anyone to contribute, no matter how much time or energy they have to offer.

Or, to quote our community manager’s mother:

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Our working hypothesis is that the best way to foster such constructive collaboration on a global scale is to:

  1. Identify specifically what needs to be done for a book.
  2. Break the work down into manageable chunks that can be divided among many collaborators.
  3. Reach out to potential contributors directly in a targeted way, with a clear sense of the needs we’d like to fill.

We’ll be doing this for all the open textbook projects Rebus supports.

The process is best illustrated right now by the History of Applied Science and Technology open textbook led by Danielle Mead Skjelver of University of Maryland University College and University of North Dakota.

The editors envision the book as 19 chapters in total, each with many subsections, but instead of tackling the whole lot at once, we are focusing the search for authors and other collaborators on a small block of chapters to begin. This is the first bite of the elephant, and will become the first volume of the text.

A spreadsheet with the chapters for volume one and their specific needs are posted on the project post in the Rebus Community.

Currently we are going even more granular than that, and focusing on the first four unclaimed subsections of Chapter One of the text, which are starred below. Each subsection is roughly 1,000 words.

Chapter One: The Ancient World (before 500 BCE) – Farmers to Pharaohs
Prehistory: Human predecessors and tools (to include plant/animal domestication)
*Mayans & Olmecs
*Egypt, northeast Africa, and Sub-Saharan Mettallurgy, Medicine & Mathematics
Mesopotamia & the fertile crescent
The Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties of China
*The Indus River Valley civilisation and Vedic Age of India
*A New World: Transforming Egyptian and Babylonian Science

Potential contributors can express their interest by replying to the project post. And if you know someone, we hope you’ll help connect us–in the forum on Twitter or by email.

How Rebus Can Help if You’re Already Doing Open Textbooks

We’ve gotten a lot of questions about how the Rebus Community can help if you are already creating open textbooks.

Those and related questions are answered in this (slightly edited) conversation between Hugh McGuire and Rebus Community member Billy Meinke of University of Hawaii, in the Rebus Community forum.

BILLY: Is there any info about what the advantages to using the [Rebus] Community Press [Pressbooks instance] are? I imagine many members are using a local instance of Pressbooks (with their own swath of plugins, or not) that may not jive with how the Community Press is set up. I personally can’t see using a Pressbooks instance that my faculty collaborators won’t have access to, and I don’t expect them to join this community anytime in the near future.

HUGH: Hi Billy, we’re actually about to have a call to discuss how to handle the issues you’ve raised … Basically, how do we:

  • clarify criteria/requirements for using the Rebus Community / tools
  • clarify/express the advantages doing Open Textbooks through the Rebus Community
  • deal with the very reasonable questions you’ve asked

In general, we are trying to solve three core problems with Open Textbook publishing, none of which has much to do with specific tools used to produce the text itself.

The things we are trying to solve are:

1/ Deciding (together) on the best-practice things that ought to happen in a good Open Textbook publishing process, among others:

  • instructional design
  • copyediting
  • creation of or sourcing of illustrations
  • copyright checks for images & assets
  • proofreading
  • peer reviewing
  • good formatting/HTML massaging
  • accessibility reviews & audits
  • metadata management
  • distribution to repositories, libraries
  • getting adoption of the text in classrooms
  • Etc?

2/ How do we build an open and collaborative process so all these things can get done, in a systematic way, for “all” Open Textbooks (going through the Rebus Community process)

3/ How do we build a global community of people who care about OER that will help do all the things discovered in No. 1?

So, if you have authors using whatever tools (your own PB instance, ours, something else altogether) to produce their textbook… how are they addressing the other parts of the process above? Will you or U Hawaii do this for them? Will they forgo parts of it?

BILLY: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. These are things to solve, but the REBUS project is in a good position to work towards it.

Re. the Open Textbook publishing process, there is a lot that can be borrowed from publishing workflows like those used by academic journals as well as instructional design companies. There are, however, unique challenges presented when doing this “out in the open” in terms of:

1) signaling when/where/what help is desired and

2) vetting the competency of individuals that want to contribute.

We are working out how this can function locally (in the UH system) but it will involve training/certification in copyright, basic instructional design, and using WordPress/Pressbooks. The signaling/tracking part hasn’t been approached yet.

IME open source projects tend to rely on task completion checklists done in project management tools like or Trello, or in documents as simple as Google spreadsheets.

I’m inclined to think that drafting the publishing process/workflow out in the open, accepting feedback from the REBUS/OTN community, and then piloting it with some Open Textbook projects would help it “stick” with the community of OER advocates that will be using it.

The other factor to consider is that many authors/editors/contributors may not be familiar with the tools or methods used in F/OSS projects.

HUGH: See some comments inline below:

the Open Textbook publishing process, there is a lot that can be borrowed from publishing workflows like those used by academic journals as well as instructional design companies. There are, however, unique challenges presented when doing this “out in the open.” …

Agreed. There are lots of existing processes that we need to lean on & learn from. The ones you’ve mentioned, plus open creation projects (LibriVox, Wikipedia), Open Source Software, and more.

But Open Textbooks will have their own set of needs/constraints, and I believe if we want to start making Open Textbooks truly at scale, we’ll need to approach that challenge as a global community & develop “system-wide” solutions, rather than, for instance, every campus with an OER mandate re-inventing the wheel. What OpenSUNY & BCcampus know about creating Open Textbooks should be “baked” into a shared process, that we can all benefit from … ditto what U Hawaii is doing, or will do.

And, we view our role as trying to encourage all of us to work together to find these solutions & hopefully start baking them into some software and approaches to these problems.

… 1) signaling when/where/what help is desired …

yes, this is our v0.1 software thought as well – how do we start surfacing:

  • a) projects that are happening
  • b) what they need (and when)

and just as importantly, how can we build ways to broadcast these needs to a global community who are willing to help.

… and 2) vetting the competency of individuals that want to contribute…

Yes, especially with OTs, we need to be cautious about “who gets to do what” … This is why we’re not approaching this with, eg, the Wikipedia model (anyone can edit!). Rather, it’s a matter of:

  • a) identifying the sorts of things that need to be done, and
  • b) finding ways to communicate to the people we want doing them.

For instance, you want chapter authors to be “experts”, and you want chapter reviewers to be expert as well. However, a chapter proofreader could be from a wide range of backgrounds, expertise.

… We are working out how this can function locally (in the UH system) but it will involve training/certification in copyright, basic instructional design, and using WordPress/Pressbooks. The signaling/tracking part hasn’t been approached yet…

Well, I wonder: could we work with you on this … rather than having that knowledge/process live within UH, wouldn’t it be great if this got baked into a “global system” that anyone working on OTs could benefit from? And, assuming that similar things are happening at, say BCcampus, it would be great to be able to exchange and build on these processes for everyone.

This is really what Rebus is trying to do.

… IME open source projects tend to rely on task completion checklists done in project management tools like or Trello, or in documents as simple as Google spreadsheets. …

Right. Our approach at Rebus has been to say: there are lots of tools out there that solve various problems, and we should use whatever works out of the box.

However there will be certain specific needs that Open Textbook publishing will have, and we’d like to do our best – with a community of practitioners, like, er you! – to better understand those needs, and where necessary, build software that solves specific pain points not solved already by existing tools.

… The other factor to consider is that many authors/editors/contributors may not be familiar with the tools or methods used in F/OSS projects….

That is a big issue, I think, and it’s one reason why we didn’t say: Use GitHub! Use Slack! Use Trello! We need to get a better feel for how people actually want to work on OTs, and stitch tools around that “natural” workflow, rather than either forcing tools onto people, or worse, building from scratch before we have a real understanding of how people will work.

POSTSCRIPT: After this conversation, Billy wrote a helpful post detailing research on production workflows for OER.

If you’d like to continue the conversation, or you’re interested in knowing more about how Rebus can help your open textbook projects, join the Rebus Community forum.

The Rebus Approach to Accessibility & Inclusivity

In part one of our series on accessibility, we covered what accessibility is and why it’s important. Now, learn about what we’re doing to ensure accessibility for the open textbooks we support.

How Do We Ensure Accessibility & Inclusivity of the Open Textbooks Created with Rebus Support?

The Rebus Community is committed to ensuring that all Open Textbooks coming through the Rebus process go through (and pass!) an accessibility audit, and indeed that we build accessibility right into the authoring process.

Currently we are using an in-progress open textbook, Financial Planning in Public Policy, as a pilot/test case for developing an accessibility audit on Rebus Community supported books.

The idea behind what we are proposing is to:

  1. make sure that authors making Open Textbooks are aware of good accessibility practice from the start of the process
  2. help them easily implement good accessibility practice
  3. provide a standard accessibility audit process after an Open Textbook is created (possibly with some tools associated)
  4. provide a mechanism to “fix” accessibility problems found in the audit process
  5. have an “accessibility stamp of approval” for projects that have successfully passed the accessibility audit

Collaborators will be developing an accessibility checklist, which we will then apply to the book, along with figuring out next steps for what such a process should look like.

This process is being undertaken in partnership with the Inclusive Design Research Center at OCAD University and the University of Washington. Follow updates on this topic on the project post in the Rebus Community forum.

For more on accessibility and universal design, check out these resources:

Pressbooks EDU Guide chapter on Accessibility and Universal Design
BC Campus Accessibility Toolkit

A Rebus Community Philosophy of Open Textbooks

I wrote the following as part of an answer to one of our Intro to Philosophy Open Textbook project team members, who wanted a clearer scope for that project (which by the way, is still looking for collaborators — can you help?).

While everything we are doing at the Rebus Community is evolving as we get to work with real practitioners in creating Open Textbooks, we have some important fundamental principles that underpin our understanding of what an Open Textbook is or should be. So, here is:

A Rebus Community Philosophy of Open Textbooks

At Rebus, we believe in the value of books, of textbooks and especially of Open Textbooks. However, we do not consider Open Textbooks as static, finished things. Things that just get read for free.

Rather we see Open Textbooks as building blocks for further intellectual explorations — and the “Open” part makes that building much, much more interesting.

In particular, we see Open Textbooks not simply as “free” books.

More Freedom than Just Costless (aka the 5Rs)

The “costless” aspect of an Open Textbook is in some ways its least important freedom-attribute, compared with the other freedoms that come with Open Textbooks: the freedom to build upon, to remix, to reuse, to revise, redistribute.

Open Textbooks — if created and published at scale — can serve as basic framework for an “intellectual public resource”, a resource that can and should be built upon, used and elaborated upon, repurposed and repackaged in many different ways. (See the 5Rs of Open Educational Resources).

(For more writing about our thoughts on books, and Open Textbooks, see here here and here.)

Open Textbooks as a Map of Knowledge

So thinking about that context broadly, our vision is, eventually, to have a complete “map of the basic building blocks of knowledge” available as Open Textbooks. (Yes! We recognize that such an ambition is, of course, epistemologically impossible! But it’s still a mental model when we are thinking about what we are trying to do: Providing the source code of knowledge, that can built upon).

This ambition means not just that these Open Textbooks/building blocks are free, but even more important that these building blocks can be used to build new educational experiences, new books, new iterations.

An Introduction to X

So, while we are excited about any Open Textbook we can help usher into the world — regardless of how specific or obscure its subject or approach — we have a particular interest in laying down the basic frameworks of knowledge. So that, for instance, the “Introduction to X” might be most useful as a basic introduction to the ideas of, for want of a better term, “the cannon of X,” with an expectation that future iterations, or versions, or companion works can build on this starting point, criticize it and question it.

This is not to say that we hope a Rebus Community-supported “Intro to X” is a dull, personality-free reporting of the history of “X.” But rather that such an “Intro to X” covers the aspects generally agreed to be important to know about “X” … while still leaving space for more idiosyncratic explorations within the text.

And, we hope that, once published, a Rebus supported “Introduction to X” can become a starting point for new explorations and iterations, building on the text itself.

Come join us?

If you are interested in these ideas, come help us build on them at the Rebus Community for Open Textbook Creation.


A Collaborative Approach to Making Open Textbooks … Getting Started

The Rebus Community for Open Textbook Creation is building a global network of people passionate about Open Education, a network of people willing to dedicate time to help with a mission:

To make Open Textbooks available in every subject, in every language in the world.

That’s a (big, very big) long-term goal.

Starting Small: The Projects We are Working On

But it will start small. We are targeting a handful of Open Textbook projects (about 10) in the coming months, and we’ll be working with authors, editors, librarians, college staff, and volunteers around the world to develop a process that makes sense.

We have a couple of projects started already (would you like to help?): Introduction to Philosophy and An Open Anthology of Early American Literature. And we have some great projects in the works, books on: the history of technology, cultural geography, nutrition, and more.

Working with people around the world on this small collection of projects will help us better understand the unique characteristics of Open Textbook creation and community building, help us (all of us together, perhaps including you) build community-driven processes that work well. And help us build the (right) infrastructure to make all of this easier.

How the Rebus Community Can Help

The kinds of things we hope the Rebus Community can help with on Open Textbook projects include:

  • Supporting project management for Open Textbook publishing projects
  • Finding ways to get a global community help support various tasks needed to publish Open Textbooks, including:
    • contributing chapters (where appropriate)
    • copyediting & proofreading
    • reviews & peer reviews of chapters & books
    • sourcing (openly licensed!) illustrations & images
    • formatting, design, and accessibility of Open Textbooks
    • “marketing” books to professors and classes
    • distributing books into libraries and directories
    • making Open Textbooks easy to find and free to anyone in the world

Not every project will need all of this support. In some cases, academic institutions have provided funding for some of these activities. Sometimes there is no funding at all.

And, of course, not every project will want “external” people in all aspects of their book. Each project will be unique, but we hope to develop a general approach that is flexible enough to support many kinds of projects.

But, these are the kinds of things we hope the Rebus Community can help with, partly through our staff, and partly though a growing global network of passionate people dedicated to making Open Textbooks.

What’s the Catch? What Should an Open Textbook Author or Editor Expect to Contribute Back?

And, what of a lead author of an Open Textbook who joins the Rebus Community to get help with a project? What do we expect of them?

First and foremost, we want people who care about Open Education, who believe that the world will be a better place if there is an Open Textbook available in every subject, in every language in the world.

We also are looking for people who care about building a global community around Open Textbooks.

We expect that they will be present on the Rebus Community Forum, and will thank the volunteers who are willing to spend time to work on their projects.

We hope they will respond quickly and positively when, for instance, someone spends a couple of hours proofreading one of their chapters, or finding images for them. Or when someone offers to do this for them.

We hope that they will encourage chapter contributors, thank volunteers who have cleaned up their formatting. In a word, we hope they will spend some time being kind to the people who are helping them make their Open Textbook.

But Really, How Much of My Time?

How much time & commitment this actually will be for a lead author is hard to pin down. Is this two hours a day (probably not!), or an hour a week (maybe)?

In some ways it depends what kind of support the author is seeking. If you are looking only for proofreaders for one chapter, then the time commitment would be small. If you are looking to build a community that will support for the whole process of creating an Open Textbook from scratch — from chapter contributions to reviews to proofreading & design — then chances are you’ll need to put in more time.

We’re Figuring This Out Together

But we (that is, Rebus staff) are here to help.  We’re not quite sure yet what the details will be, exactly how these different projects will work. Though as with anything, I would guess that the more time a lead author puts in to fostering a positive community around an Open Textbook, the more vibrant that community will be. The more successful that book is likely to be.

But, in actual fact, I guess that all of this time would likely be spent in any case: even outside of the Rebus Community, surely an author would thank her proofreaders by email, would express appreciation if someone spent some hours finding great images to go with his chapters.

It Takes a Village

Publishing a book — an Open Textbook, or a traditional one — is not a solitary endeavour.

It takes a village to make a book. Our hope, with the Rebus Community, is that we can bring a global village together, on the web, and help make an Open Textbook for every subject, in every language in the world.

It’s going to take a while, but perhaps you can help us? If you are interested, please wander over to the Rebus Community Forum, register, and say “Hi.”