Some implications of online open publishing

September 19, 2015 Tony Bates

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One of the differences between an online open textbook and a commercial printed textbook is that developments with an open textbook are continuous rather than episodic. Since the April publication of Teaching in a Digital Age, my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, there have been several developments around the book. Now is an appropriate time to bring readers up to date on these developments, because they indicate some broader issues around open publishing..

Demand

Demand has remained strong throughout the summer. There are roughly 200 site visits a day, where readers can read online without downloading, although this can peak up to 500 visits a day on some days. However, most people do not spend much time reading online at the web site, but prefer to download copies to their desktop or tablets. Almost 12,000 copies have been downloaded in total since April, and downloads have been averaging about 60 a day since September 1. About 80% of the downloads are as pdfs, suggesting that people still prefer a more print-like way of reading. The other downloads are for mobile learning, mainly on tablets. I have to say though that I much prefer to read the book online, on my laptop. The graphics fit much better and I can see the comments that readers have made.

Print on demand

BCcampus has this week listed the book on the BC Open Textbook web site, from where it can be downloaded, as well as from the book’s own site. It is now also available on demand in a full printed version. I am grateful for BCcampus making this possible, because there is clearly demand from many readers for a full printed version of the book, judging from the number that have downloaded the pdf version.

The cost though of the fully printed book version is high: $17 for the black and white version, and $53 for the full colour version, to which you need to add shipping costs of around $20-$25 just in Canada. And this is just a direct print and distribution cost without any profit or overheads included. I’m still waiting for delivery of the printed versions, so I can’t comment on the quality, but it is some indication of the value of having the book freely available online, especially as the printed version will not have the interactive functions of the online versions. Online versions are clearly not only a much cheaper but also a more educationally effective option than a fully printed version.

There is a lesson here for authors. The reason the printed version is so expensive is because the book is long – over 500 pages – and because of the very liberal use of colour graphics in the original web version. The cost of print-on-demand is directly related to the length of the book and the use of colour. So if you want the printed version of your open online book to be easily affordable, keep down the number of pages to around 200, and use colour graphics very sparingly or better design for greyscale images. However, I deliberately designed the book to be used as an online resource rather than as a static printed book, and the online version will be updated over time while the printed version will have to be updated at less frequent intervals. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read the book through from cover to cover, except over a longish period of time. So if you design primarily for a low cost print-on-demand open textbook, you will lose some significant educational affordances of online learning.

There is also a lesson for readers. There is a real downside to sticking to a traditional print version of an open textbook. It will cost you financially, and you will not get the same affordances that you will get by using an online, digital version. Nevertheless, clearly many faculty and instructors – and probably many students as well – still seem to need to go through a transition period before feeling comfortable reading and studying fully digitally.

Podcasts and minor editorial changes

I have been slowly adding short podcasts to the book. Their purpose is to give a personalised view on the content of each chapter. In particular I have shared some of my motivation for writing the chapter and my more personal views on some of the chapter topics in the podcasts. I have also made some minor editorial changes since April 1 as a result of feedback from readers.

Here is a summary of the changes since April 1:

  1. 19 April 2015: Podcast for Scenario A added
  2. 3 May 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 1 on the book’s structure and on skills development, and the order of Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 1 reversed, following reader feedback.
  3. 16 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 2 on why this chapter is important and on the relationship between epistemology, learning theories and teaching methods added.
  4. 17 August 2015: Podcast added to Chapter 3 on why a chapter on campus-based teaching methods was needed.
  5. 23 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 4, on the relationship between quality, modes of delivery, teaching methods and design and on some of the issues raised in this chapter. Also some editing of the text to clarify the distinction between teaching methods and design models.

However, I ran into a ‘block’ when I came to do podcasts about MOOCs (Chapter 5), not because I don’t know what to say, but because I can’t keep calm when discussing MOOCs! Each time I’ve tried to do a podcast on MOOCs, I got carried away and it’s ended up far too long and far too vitriolic for measured contemplation. However, the rain is coming back after a wonderful dry summer in Vancouver, so I will try to finish all the podcasts over the fall – including the ones on MOOCs. I will then update you again early in the new year.

Adoption

This is the ultimate test of the book: who is using it and how?

It’s still very difficult to get accurate information – web analytics are useful to a point, but they don’t give you the qualitative information that you need. That comes from readers’ comments, personal e-mails, and casual conversations with colleagues (“By the way, when I was at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico a couple of weeks ago, I met a professor who was using your book with her class. Can’t remember her name now, but she was enthusiastic about it.”)

BCcampus has an online form you can fill in if you are using the book as a resource for a class. I would really appreciate it if you could fill in this form if you are using the book, either for a course or for faculty development. This feedback is being used by BCcampus as evidence of the effectiveness of their open textbook strategy in general, but completing the form will also enable me to see where and by whom the book is being used.

I know from e-mails I have received and from comments in the book itself that the book has been adopted by three universities in British Columbia for post-graduate courses on e-learning or educational technology, by faculty in several universities in the USA, and for graduate courses in universities in Africa, Europe and Asia.  Individual faculty and instructors are my main target group and it is gratifying to know that several heads of departments and deans are using it to encourage their faculty to change their teaching methods, while other individual faculty members are independently working their way through the book. However, I really need much better data and information than I am able to get at the moment, so please fill in the BCcampus form if possible.

Webinars and presentations

The book has also led to a number of webinars or face-to-face meetings on topics raised in the book, as follows:

  • BC Educational Technology Users group: Agile design (webinar)
  • Students in the Master of Arts in Learning and Technology, Royal Roads University: Thinking about theory (workshop)
  • Community of Practice, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University: Open education and open publishing (Skype discussion)
  • Contact North (These webinars are open and free. For more information and/or to register, click here)
    • September 29: Teaching with technology: best practices and options
    • November 3: Choosing media
    • December 1: Deciding on mode(s) of delivery
    • January 12: Ensuring quality in digital learning
  • Bar Ilan University, Israel (via Skype)

I am willing to offer other webinars around the book, on request, and subject to my availability and the demand.

Translation

The whole book has already been translated into Vietnamese by the Ministry of Science & Technology in Vietnam. The Ministry is printing 1,000 copies to be distributed to universities and the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, as allowed by the Creative Commons licence for the book. I have agreed to keep in regular communication to ensure any updates are available for possibly later print editions of the book in Vietnamese.

Half the book has been translated into French, but the money for the translation ran out, and I am hoping to find a sponsor to finish it. I am working on setting up a site for the incomplete French version, to which later chapters could be added as and when they become translated.

The Beijing Open University is currently in discussion with a Chinese publisher regarding a Chinese translation. This may mean finding a way to enable the publisher to recoup costs through sales of the book in Chinese. However, I don’t want to lose the open licensing arrangement for a Chinese version if at all possible, so this is still very much under discussion.

Instructors in the Faculty of Engineering at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina are working on a Spanish translation of two chapters and an appendix.

Translation however is expensive and/or time consuming. It may in certain circumstances be necessary to change the open licence for translation into another language so that the costs can be recovered by the agency doing the translation. Another strategy is to expand on that of the University of Buenos Aires, by sharing out the translation across several Spanish language universities or departments, with each university doing a chapter each.

Again it can be seen that the very real cost of translation makes it difficult to keep foreign language versions in a completely free and open licensing arrangement, unless there is a powerful sponsor such as a foreign government ministry or other non-commercial sponsor, or unless the work is broken down and shared out among many different volunteers.

Reviews

Although the three commissioned external reviews are now published as an appendix to the book, I haven’t seen any published reviews yet in academic journals. BCcampus is offering a stipend of $250 for those who write and publish a formal review for an academic journal. If you know of any published reviews of the book, please let me know.

Conclusion

The response to the book so far has been very rewarding, but more importantly the goal of reaching out to mainline faculty and to post-graduate education students is being accomplished through this open publication. Perhaps even more importantly, the experience with my book, in less than six months, makes it clear that open publishing is both academically satisfying and has enormous potential for educational innovation and change.

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