Technical Openness of OER and Pressbooks

Something we take for granted when it comes to Open Educational Resources (OER) is that there is a simple solution to the legal restraints on content. Creative Commons licenses are the gold standard for releasing content, making it clear that you would like others to build upon and share your work.

But the legal openness of content is only one side, and the technical openness of content is easily overlooked. Just because you have the legal rights to edit and revise or adapt an OER does not mean that it is easy to do so. Borrowing from Wiley’s Open Definition page that explains both legal and technical openness, this post will explain some of the reasoning behind our decision to use Pressbooks as the platform of choice for working with OER at UH.

Tools for craft making

Wiley offers the ALMS framework for assessing the technical openness of open content:

  • Access to editing tools
  • Level of expertise required
  • Meaningfully editable
  • Self-sourced

In a nutshell, the above criteria can be asked as a series of questions when trying to understand how easily you can edit OER. Does the file format the OER is shared in require expensive software to work with? Must you be an expert using specific tools to make changes to the OER? Are we talking about a PDF here, or an HTML page? These are all things to consider as they can present barriers to anything beyond an off-the-shelf adoption in which the adopting party makes no changes to the work. For educational uses, this rarely works well.

Enter Pressbooks.

Pressbooks is a variation of the popular WordPress content management system (CMS) that supports more than 60 million of websites, a huge chunk of the Web. Pressbooks is different than the WordPress you may have encountered in the past, in that it has been set up with controls and features designed to make the publishing process easier.

To be sure, lots of different content creation software and suites can be used to make OER. Tools ranging from MS Word to Google Sites can all create and house content, but a limiting factor of a many of these is that they require that same software to edit OER created in them. What if I want to re-use OER someone made in a piece of software I don’t have? This is often the case, and can drag a project to a halt.

Reason #1: No lock-in

Pressbooks export options

One of the most powerful features of Pressbooks is that it exports to a variety of formats that can be read and edited elsewhere. It should come as no surprise that editing a Pressbook inside Pressbooks is easiest, but a Pressbook can be exported to ePub, PDF, MOBi, and a range of XML flavors among other options. This means that content created in Pressbooks will be readable by almost any device, and is likely available in a format that you will be able to edit with free software. Content in, content out, so to speak.

Reason 2: Editor and reader all in one

Pressbooks editing screen

With Pressbooks, the editor and the viewer are all in the same location. Just like any other website, a Pressbook can be edited on the fly by an author or contributor. As I’ve been telling faculty lately, “if you can edit a webpage, you can edit a Pressbook.” This is what firmly places control over the content in the hands of instructional faculty, something traditional textbook publishers simply do not offer. For example, if you were reading one of BC Campus’ textbooks produced in Pressbooks, it takes very few steps to grab an export of their content and import it into your own Pressbooks instance. This is what we’re going to be offering to faculty within the UH system that first complete training in OER, copyright, and using Pressbooks. The power to create and adapt OER will be in the hands of everyone who wants it.

Reason 3: A community of makers

Pressbooks codebase on Github

One sign of a successful software project is that there is a community of end-users and developers who actively work to make the software better. Pressbooks only has one part-time developer working on the codebase, which on the surface may seem worrisome. But if you look deeper and realize that there are 23 developers who have committed code to the core codebase, and dozens more who are working on their own version of the software, you see that it’s a much bigger project. Pressbooks supports the BC Campus Open Textbook project, OPEN SUNY, and Lumen Learning’s flagship OER platforms. It’s the community of folks working on the codebase, and working with OER inside of Pressbooks that makes it a solid choice for us to begin our own OER initiative with.

This post hopefully provides some of the reasoning behind our planned use of Pressbooks at UH. I’m currently working with faculty inside a development instance of Pressbooks to give it a ride around the block and learn what aspects of working with OER inside Pressbooks will need support and training. If you’re interested in tinkering around with Pressbooks yourself, get in touch with us at oer @

Posted by Billy Meinke