Supporting Open Textbook Creation
17 Tools and Techniques for Creating OER
Whether adopting, adapting, or authoring OER, there is a spectrum of approaches you can take. One end of the spectrum is the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) approach. The other is the “program” approach, which offers full-support services to your authors and adopters. These are two ends of a spectrum where a variety of combinations and support services exist. As a project manager, you will need to decide which approach to take and develop the appropriate workflows to support it.
The most basic DIY approach generally means that the author is responsible for the majority of the content creation and the production of the OER. This could include some support from you and your team, or it could be as basic as offering a hosting platform, signing the check for the grant or stipend (where applicable), and/or writing out the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). An MOU or similar agreement is highly recommended regardless of where on the spectrum you fall. On the other end is the full-service approach, which could mean anything from providing guidance on using the publishing platform, providing support services such as image creation or searching for OER materials, to building the actual OER itself. The program approach is more of a service, where authors are responsible for the content, but the editing, building, and/or managing the OER are benefits your team offers. Both approaches require a significant time commitment from the author and the project manager, even at the DIY level (See Chapter 16, Project Management).
Choosing the Right Approach
The approach you choose will depend primarily on the resources that you have available to you, including funding and staffing. If your resources are limited to the funds for a grant but no additional funding for support services or you have no funding, then the DIY approach will serve you best. However, keep in mind that you will have less control over the final product, and your role will be primarily that of encouraging the faculty to keep the project moving and offering whatever level of support you have determined in your MOU. In the “program” approach, you will be providing more services and support to your author. You may be creating the content in the publishing platform or offering copyediting services to your authors. You may have a team, including a graphic designer or instructional designer, to assist in the creation of the final product. You will have more control over the final product since you and your team will probably be doing the actual build or creation of the OER. You will more easily be able to work accessibility and usability into the final product and have more control over quality, but it will take more time and effort on your part and that of your team.
Before taking on your first OER project, you should consider what kind of approach you want to take and what services you will be offering to assist authors in coordinating or creating their projects. Below are some examples of the types of services offered by other OER programs for authors, adaptors, and adopters:
- Consultations on locating existing OER materials or works under a Creative Commons license
- Cover design
- Disseminating the OER to various repositories and referatories
- Digital Object Identifier (DOI)/ International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
- Graphic design (e.g., images for the text and/or cover design)
- Layout and design of the final product
- Licensing the work with a CC license
- Peer review
- Permissions for use of third-party materials
- Print on demand
- Accessibility testing
- Review for inclusivity and diversity
Your approach will likely be a mix of these services. No two programs look exactly alike. You may not be able to support all of these services, but it is a good idea to ask these questions up front so that you and your authors/adaptors can be clear about who will be doing what. A good approach is to start small and then grow your services. That way you can be sure your program will be sustainable (See Chapter 20, Sustaining OER Projects).
Content Building Platforms
There are multiple technology options for authors to use when creating their content. Your authors may be creating their OER from scratch (authoring) or they may pull content together from a variety of sources (adapting). They may be using a variety of tools to do so. Regardless of the approach they are taking, supporting an author who is creating OER usually requires having a content building platform in place where authors can host the finished project. There are a lot of options to choose from and you may want to consider which tools you can and cannot support. Some examples of popular hosting platforms that also support text authoring include:
- Google Sites or Docs
- Website creation sites such as Wix or Weebly
- OER Commons
- Your institution’s learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.)
- Of course, the OER could also be a class syllabus or other ancillary materials. Then your primary concern will be how to share those materials so others can reuse, revise, and remix your content.
Then you need to make some decisions. For example, if your main publishing platform is Pressbooks, will you let faculty use other platforms as well? Do you want to (and do you have the capacity to) support multiple platforms? What will you do if a faculty member is using Overleaf (LaTeX) to write their book? Overleaf outputs only to a PDF format. What will your response be if your faculty author wants or needs to use something completely different for hosting because of certain software requirements? Keep in mind that platforms and the files created must be accessible, reusable, revisable, and remixable. While you may not support all these platforms, you should be familiar with them and the pros and cons of each tool. The recommendation here is to start with one publishing option and build up to additional options as time and resources allow.
The platform(s) that you or your authors will be using to create the content is a major consideration. In some cases, this will depend on how you are hosting your content (See Chapter 19, Hosting and Sharing OER) and how you are approaching content creation (DIY or program). Once you know which platform(s) you are using, check the specifications to see what is compatible so you can provide submission guidelines to the author. Faculty may want to provide you with a PDF of their material. Either discourage or prohibit PDFs at this stage. They are often difficult to convert to an online publishing platform and are also difficult to edit. It is more useful to have the Word or OpenOffice version so that others can build on your author’s work (remixing content, for example).
If you are sending the work out for copyediting, there may be some requirements from the editor about the formatting. It is always better to keep it simple when it comes to the content because it will be easier to convert from one format to another (e.g., Word to HTML rather than PDF to HTML). If your authors are creating ancillary materials, such as PowerPoints or quiz banks, think carefully about the formatting and the accessibility of that format and how you will share it. An OER can have multiple parts (the text, the PowerPoint slides, the instructor manual) and you need to be able to tie all these together.
Another consideration when choosing tools is the level of your authors’ technology skills or the skills of your team. You may need to provide training on the platform or processes, or you may want to build a community of practice. Some content creation systems are more complex than others and there are some platforms that work better for one discipline over another (e.g., math or physics). Something like Pressbooks will work for most disciplines and is a good starting point but is certainly not your only option. You can add other hosting options as you grow your program. Popular software for content creation include:
|Notepad (Windows)||Plain text authoring. Very limited formatting and organization options. No spelling and grammar checks. There are also free online notepad editors.||Free|
|Google Workspace (previously G Suite)||Basic formatting and organization tools are available, plus more advanced tools (e.g., footnotes, table of contents). A good tool for shared authoring.||Free|
|OpenOffice||Basic formatting and organization tools are available, plus more advanced tools. A good substitute for Word.||Free|
|Overleaf||Advanced formatting and organization tools. Built-in support for LaTeX, used for displaying mathematical formulas.||Free|
|PreTeXt (previously MathBook XML)||Advanced formatting and organization tools. Built-in support for LaTeX for mathematical formulas as well as HTML.||Free|
|Microsoft Word||Basic formatting and organization tools are available, plus more advanced tools (e.g., footnotes, table of contents). Importing from Word files may create formatting issues in some hosting platforms.||$|
|Adobe InDesign||Various detailed formatting options. Best for post-creation editing. May pose a barrier of entry for new authors and program managers.||$$$|
Another option is to have the content creation separate from the hosting. An example here is Manifold, which will host your content but does not have a specific creation tool for writing and formatting content. Other examples include:
If you are using the DIY approach, you can guide the authors toward a content and hosting service, such as OER Commons or LibreText, where authors can pull together existing content and build an OER. If you take this approach, you will need to consider how much support you will offer for authors with technical questions. This is an especially important question for programs taking the DIY approach, since your authors will be writing and building their content with less hands-on support.
The ability to reuse and remix an OER is important, but it’s not always taken into consideration during the content creation phase and when choosing which platform to use. Here the ALMS Framework (Access, Level, Meaningfully Editable, Self-Sourced) by Wiley (2014) will be a good resource to evaluate the technology you are considering:
“The ALMS Framework provides a way of thinking about those technical choices and understanding the degree to which they enable or impede a user’s ability to engage in the 5R activities permitted by open licenses.” (See also Chapter 1, Introduction to Open Educational Resources).
The ALMS Framework is comprised of four categories:
- Access to Editing Tools: What is the format of the content and how easy is it to remix or reuse the content? Do you need some specific or proprietary software (like InDesign or Adobe Acrobat Professional) to make changes? Does it need to be done using a specific operating system? Make sure that the platform or tool you are using is as broadly compatible as possible. Otherwise, others may not be able to remix your content.
- Level of Expertise Required: Would another author be able to remix or reuse your content with basic technology skills or do they need to have specialized skills? For example, most people can edit a Word document but not everyone is comfortable editing an InDesign document.
- Meaningfully Editable: Many faculty authors may want to publish their final product as a PDF document. However, the PDF format is not easy to edit and does not allow for easy remixing and reusing. For a work to be meaningfully editable, the content needs to be published in a way that makes it easy for others to reuse it. Therefore, .txt is preferable over .pdf. Or, if the author wants the work in PDF, make sure the original editable Word version is also available. In some cases, such as Pressbooks, a PDF can easily be generated from the platform.
- Self-Sourced: Is the format of the text you are presenting also the best format for remixing or re-editing content, or will it require conversion from one format to another in order for another author to reuse the content? It is preferable to not require content conversion as it tends to lead to loss of formatting or content.
Ultimately, you will want to choose the format that will allow the most people the most flexibility to reuse, remix, or revise the content (Wiley 2014). Simpler is generally better, whether you are publishing text, images, or videos. If you need to publish in a non-editable format (e.g., Articulate Storyline), consider how you can make an editable version (.docx or .ppt) of the content available.
Layout and Design of Content
Most faculty are inexperienced with layout and design of textbooks. They may want certain features, such as callout boxes or multiple columns, which may not be possible in your chosen hosting platform. In some cases (e.g., Pressbooks), the formatting happens in the hosting platform rather than in Word or Adobe. Unless you are planning to share your content in those file formats, you may end up doing a lot of cutting and pasting to get the desired look. You will want to be able to offer multiple outputs (print PDF, digital PDF, Word, plain text, XML, HTML) for one text. This makes it trickier to control the look and design of your text to the smallest detail. That does not mean your final product will not look good, but your authors may need to give up on some specific design features in order to make the final product more reusable and printable in a variety of formats. Your hosting platform may have some formatting restrictions, such as being able to create a complex table or require additional programming knowledge to complete the design. You may not always be able to provide these services. Learn about the specifications of your chosen platform. Ultimately, you are looking for a balance of design and usability, keeping accessibility in mind as you choose.
When receiving content from authors, simpler is generally better since it is likely that the content will need some kind of conversion (from .docx to .xml, for example) before it can be uploaded to the hosting platform. Layout and design can be lost in the process. Then you or your authors need to try and replicate it in your chosen hosting platform. Instead of a completed PDF with double columns and images interspersed, request a simple Word or similar document. Ask the authors to indicate where they want two columns or where a table should be with a simple note in the document (e.g., [Insert Table 6 here] or [Start two-column layout here]).
One option is to provide your authors with templates indicating how chapters and content should be laid out or to provide them with some training on the platform itself. A style sheet is also a good tool to have. Style sheets, similar to templates, let the authors know if you need them to use headings or how they should mark content that needs to be formatted differently. Many journals have style sheets for authors and can be a good place to look to develop your own. Keep in mind that you or your authors may not be able to carry through all the desired design elements, but that this flexibility benefits those who want to reuse or remix your content. If you have an instructional designer as part of your team, this is a good place to get them involved. Authors are excellent subject matter experts but they may not have the expertise around learning design that can be useful during formatting. Questions that an instructional designer could help answer include:
- What elements should be in tabular form for easier comprehension?
- Are there other structural elements to consider?
- What kind of scaffolding needs to be built into the text to support learning?
An instructional designer can provide this view, and a template would be a fantastic way to show faculty how/why this structure is ideal.
An example of a style sheet and template to create a style sheet is included in Aesoph’s Self-Publishing Guide, Chapter 19, Create a Style Sheet (2018).
If you don’t have instructional designers on your team, a template can help authors design their content for the best learning. For example, you may want to encourage faculty to start with learning outcomes, include reflections or activities, and have a summary of important points at the end. An excellent resource for this is the Open Textbook Publishing Orientation (PUB 101) course. The section on Developing a Textbook Structure goes into more depth about good layout and design for open textbooks.
If faculty want a specific layout, you should encourage them to give you one chapter or module in advance to test the layout/design they want. Otherwise, a great deal of time may be spent taking apart the work they did. A sample should be sufficient to know what layout and design the author wants and if your platform can accommodate their design wishes. Again, be clear up front about what can and cannot be offered or multimedia elements that can and cannot be supported (e.g., H5P).
Another valuable partner at this point will be your disability access services unit. Accessibility needs to be built in from the beginning, not as an afterthought. If there is such a service where you are, ask them for some advice or guidelines on how to make the OER accessible.
You may also be asked to help design the OER (e.g., choosing fonts and colors, layout, and structure). If this is not your area of strength or something you can support, this should be clear up front. A few samples can be helpful. For example, in Pressbooks, there are about 20 different themes. Choose three to four that you can support and provide faculty with example layouts early in the process so they can easily visualize what their text will look like in that theme. If you are lucky enough to have graphic designers around, offer some standard features such as custom image creation but be careful of offering to do everything the author wants. You may spend a great deal of time on formatting. Have some guidelines—you can always make an exception if it is warranted (e.g., special Cascading Style Sheets needed for formatting computer code).
If you are offering the services of a program, there may be additional technology considerations, such as graphic design software, that you will need in order to support your authors. Then you need to consider who can assist with finding or creating images, videos, or other multimedia? While there is a lot of content out there that can be used in an OER, there will invariably be an image or graph that cannot be used for legal reasons and where no OER substitute can be located. If there is no suitable OER alternative, what services can you offer or recommend to help? The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources (Jacob, Jaszi, Adler, and Cross 2021) is a valuable resource here to help you in making a fair use determination.
It’s possible your authors have the skills to create the required graphics but not necessarily. Quality and consistency of the images and graphics make the textbook more professional, so you will want to make sure you let authors/adaptors know about any standards or requirements.There are many options for creating graphics and media. If you are using the program approach, choose one or two tools that you will support but know enough about others to make recommendations.
Ask faculty authors to provide images and media along with full citations and source URLs in separate files and not embedded in the Word file. Depending on the platform, you may have to strip all this out and the image will lose quality. Just like in journal publishing, the authors should reference where each table, chart, image, or graph goes in the text. Have faculty include the wording for the alternative (alt) text of the image as well, for accessibility purposes. You can use an image tracking spreadsheet for these purposes.
You will also need to take your hosting platform into consideration. If you are building or including some kind of ancillary materials or creating a stand-alone OER, the platform that you choose needs to support this format as well or have a way to get the person to the appropriate content. A popular choice here is GitHub or Google Drive but there are many other options. Bepress and dSPACE can house multiple formats so if you have access to these, you should consider this option.
Your development and production process needs to have a clear workflow. There are some different frameworks that can help you design the workflow that works for you. See Discovering OER Production Workflows for a summary of the following workflow models:
- OERu Workflow (OER Foundation 2014): Select, Design, Develop, Deliver, Revise
- CORRE framework (Witthaus et al. 2011): Content, Openness, Reuse and Repurpose, Evidence
- OER Workflow Diagram (Rogers, n.d.): Creation, Quality Control, Technical, IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] Negotiation, Cataloguing
- Production of Open Educational Resources. Another workflow example comes from the University of Hawaiʻi (Meineke and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Outreach College 2017). It combines many of the elements from the workflows above. The five phases are: Priming, Pre-Production, Design, Development, Publishing
Look for campus partners who can assist you. In addition to your accessibility services unit, you may want to reach out to other units at your institution. For example there may be graphic design assistance available on your campus. If the authors or adaptors need illustrations created or need help remixing openly licensed images, you might try to find a unit at your institution that can provide that service. Some institutions have graphic design degree programs and students who are looking for opportunities to do some professional work. Consider exploring the possibility of a capstone project for a student to help with the layout and design of a text.
If you are fortunate to have a university press at your institution that is willing to work with you, they can be a great resource for advice and possibly support. See if they can help you address such issues such as copyediting and layout. Many university presses are small and may not have the resources to assist you but might be able to advise you.
Other partners may include the instructional designers on your campus or the instructional technologists (who host the learning management system) or the library (for dissemination). In addition, you can seek out your teaching and learning support services, such as a campus center for teaching and learning, for pedagogical support or your printing services for print-on-demand services, as well as your disability services unit to ensure accessibility of your materials. In Carson’s (2020) study of barriers to OER, one interviewee proposed a process for working with faculty on the creation of OER, explaining that having a team of experts is integral to a project’s success:
“It goes back to hitting the content, the quality, and the design, all at the same time in one resource to really make it worth the user’s time and attention. I think by assigning a team that would collaborate, one subject matter expert, one instructional designer, and one content developer and designer, we would have the ideal combination of a team to work on any OER material” (61).
Once again, the good news is that you are not alone. There are many external partners you can turn to for advice and assistance. Rely on the discussion groups and customer support offered by the platforms you’ve chosen:
- Pressbooks Community
- Manifold Community
- Rebus Community
- Open Education Network (OEN)
- OpenStax FAQ
- OER Commons
In addition, reach out to external partners such as OEN and Rebus, The Community for College Consortium for OER (CCCOER list), SPARC LibOER list, and Library Publishing Coalition for guidance and support. Some support can only be accessed if you’re a paying subscriber/member while other resources are free to anyone.
Keep in mind that not everyone has access to the same content creation software or that they may have personal reasons for not wanting to use certain software. Flexibility and planning are key. Have these conversations early on. Set a policy (e.g., all manuscripts must be in Word) but be prepared to be a little flexible (e.g., if an author only has access to OpenOffice). Set the expectations of who is responsible for what early on. This is a good thing to spell out in your MOU or other form of mutual understanding.
A primary consideration is the reusability, revisability, and remixability of the project. If your process is to publish your authors’ texts in PDF, which is often the case in the DIY model, then make sure you also provide access to the Word or text files since PDFs will not easily support future remixing or revising.
Diversity and Inclusion
Another hallmark of quality in the text is how inclusivity and diversity are addressed. This is one of the beauties of OER. A textbook that does not represent different groups or geographies can be edited to make the work more inclusive. The best approach, however, is to build diversity and inclusivity into your project right from the beginning. In 2020, OpenStax published the Improving Representation and Diversity in OER Materials framework for reviewing textbooks. You may want to share this guide with your authors at the beginning of the process so they can create inclusive and diverse content from the start rather than going back later.
Creating OER with Students
If you are in the United States and your project includes student-created content, then the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) must be taken into account. FERPA governs what kind of information about a student is private and what is not. Student privacy always needs to be taken into consideration. You will need to be sure that:
- Students understand their work may be published in an open text.
- You have a release form from each student whose work is included. Students generally retain copyright of their work, so a release form is essential.
- The instructor offers an alternative project for students who do not want to make their work public.
You may want to consult Rebus Community’s A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students for more guidance on how to work with students creating OER (Mays 2017). Even if you are not in the United States, there might be other legislation in your location that regulates this type of OER creation.
There are many things to consider when starting up your OER program or services, and this chapter asks many questions. From choosing the right approach to selecting a content creation platform, there are many choices you will need to make as the project manager. These questions are better answered earlier than later in your project management plan because they will impact what you will be offering to your authors and adaptors. Engage with your partners on campus to help you determine the best approach for your program.
- Authoring Open Textbooks (Falldin and Lauritsen, n.d.)
- The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) (Ashok and Wake Hyde 2019)
- BCcampus Open Education Self-Publishing Guide (Aesoph 2018)
- Production of Open Educational Resources. (Meineke and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Outreach College 2017)
- Faculty OER Toolkit (Moist 2017)
- OERu Workflow (OER Foundation 2014)
- OER Workflow Diagram (Rogers, n.d.)
- CORRE (Witthaus et al. 2011, slides 9–17)
- Choose the creation tool carefully and don’t become overwhelmed with trying to master too many tools at once. Keep it simple and then scale up your service.
- Work with a team whenever possible. There are many people on your campus, such as instructional designers and accessibility technologists, who can bring specialized skills to the table.
- Create your OER in a way that makes it as reusable as possible. Simpler is better.
- Document your workflows. There are many examples for you to review and adapt.
- Reach out to the community. You can find lists and discussion groups to help support your endeavors.
- Build accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity into your process from the beginning.
Aesoph, Lauri M. 2018. BCcampus Open Education Self-Publishing Guide. Victoria: B.C.: BC campus. https://opentextbc.ca/selfpublishguide/
Ashok, Apurva, and Zoe Wake Hyde. 2019. The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far). Rebus Community. https://press.rebus.community/the-rebus-guide-to-publishing-open-textbooks/.
Carson, Brandon Thomas. 2020. “Breaking Barriers: Understanding and Removing Barriers to OER Use.” Master’s thesis, Royal Roads University. https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/23447
Falldin, Melissa, and Karen Lauritsen. n.d. Authoring Open Textbooks. Open Education Network. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://press.rebus.community/authoropen/
Jacob, Meredith, Peter Jaszi, Prudence S. Adler, and William Cross. 2021. Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources. American University Washington College of Law. https://oer.pressbooks.pub/fairuse/
Mays, Elizabeth, ed. 2017. A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students. Rebus Community. https://press.rebus.community/makingopentextbookswithstudents/
Meineke, Billy, and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Outreach College. 2017. Production of Open Educational Resources. University of Hawaiʻi. https://docs.google.com/drawings/d/19hRxHQE855GUx4pg0YgUkn68Jfpq7f3d8LmDteyMeXY/
Moist, Shannon. 2017. Faculty OER Toolkit. BCcampus. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/facultyoertoolkit/
OER Foundation. “OERu Workflow.” 2014. WikiEducator. https://wikieducator.org/File:OERuworkflow.svg
OpenStax. 2020. Improving Representation and Diversity in OER Materials. Rice University. https://d3bxy9euw4e147.cloudfront.net/oscms-prodcms/media/documents/OpenStax_Representation_and_Diversity_Development_Guidelines_June2020_n4g3Dj3.pdf
Rogers, Lisa. n.d. “OER Workflow Diagram.” Heriot-Watt University. Accessed August 10, 2021. http://www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~mthljr/workflow.html
Wiley, David. 2014. “Defining the ‘Open’ in Open Content and Open Educational Resources.” opencontent.org. Accessed January 30, 2022. http://opencontent.org/definition/
Witthaus, Gabi, Julian Prior, Sam O’Neill, and Alejandro Armellini. 2011. “Developing Workflow Models for the Creation of Sustainable Open Educational Resources: OER11 Presentation.” University of Leicester. https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance/projects/ostrich/media/OER11-OSTRICH-May2011.pdf