How the University of Hawaii is solving today's higher ed problems

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Openness invites greater participation and it takes advantage of the shared energy of collaborators. The strength of openly created educational resources comes paradoxically from the vulnerability of the shared experience of that creation process.

One of the leaders in Open Educational Resources (OER) is Billy Meinke, educational technologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The University's open creation model uses Pressbooks, which Billy tells me more about in this interview.

Don Watkins (DW): How did your work at Creative Commons lead you to the University of Hawaii?

Billy Meinke (BM): Well, I've actually returned to The University of Hawaii (UH) after being in the Bay Area for several years. I completed the ETEC educational technology Master's program here and then moved to San Francisco where I worked with Creative Commons (CC). Being with CC was a rewarding and eye-opening experience, and I'm hopeful that what I learned out there will lend itself to the OER work we are ramping up at the University.

DW: What came first: instructional design or OER? Are the two symbiotic?

BM: To me, OER is just a better flavor of learning content. Instructional designers make lots of decisions about the learning product they want to create, be it a textbook or a course or a piece of media. But will they put an open license on that OER when it's published? Will they use an open source tool to author the content? Will they release it in an open format? An instructional designer can produce effective learning content without doing any of those things, but it won't be as useful to the next person. OERs are different because they are designed for reuse, regardless of pedagogical strategy or learning approach.

DW: How long has the University of Hawaii been using OERs? What were the primary motivations?

BM: The OER effort at UH started in 2014, and this past November I took over management of OER activities at UH Manoa, the University system's flagship campus.

The UH system has a healthy group of OER advocates throughout, primarily at the community colleges. They've transitioned hundreds of courses to become textbook zero (textbooks at no cost) and have made lots of headway building OER-based courses for two-year students. I've been really impressed with how well they've moved towards OER and how much money they've saved students over the last few semesters. We want to empower faculty to take control of what content they teach with, which we expect will result in their saving students money, at all of our campuses.

DW: What are Pressbooks? Why are Pressbooks important to the creation of OERs?

BM: Members of the faculty do have a choice in terms of what content they teach from, much of the time. Some write their own content, or maintain websites that house a course. Pressbooks is a WordPress-based publishing platform that makes it simpler to manage the content—like a book, with sections and chapters, a table of contents, author and publisher metadata, and the capability of to export the "book" into formats that can be easily read and reused.

Because most undergraduate courses still rely on a primary textbook, we're opening up a means for faculty to adopt an existing open textbook or to co-author a text with others. Pressbooks is the tool, and we're developing the processes for adapting OER as we go.

DW: How can a person get involved in development of Pressbooks?

BM: Pressbooks has a GitHub repository where they collaboratively build the supporting software, and I've lurked on it for the last year or so. It can take some getting used to, but the conversations that happen there reveal the direction of the software and give an idea of who is working on what. Pressbooks does offer the free hosting of a limited version of the software (it includes a watermark to encourage folks to upgrade) for those who want to tinker without too much commitment. Also, the software is openly licensed (GPLv2), so anyone can use the code without cost or permission.

DW: What other institutions use Pressbooks?

BM: Some of the more widely known examples are SUNY's Open Textbook project and the BCcampus OpenEd project. Lumen Learning also has its own version of Pressbooks, as does Open Oregon State.

We're looking at what all of these folks are doing to see where we can take our use of Pressbooks, and we hope to help pave the way for others who are developing their own OERs. In some cases, Pressbooks is being used to support entire courses and has integrated activities and assessments, which can hook into the Learning Management System (LMS) an institution uses for course delivery.

Because Pressbooks is powered by WordPress, it actually has quite a bit of flexibility in terms of what it can do, but we're setting up a humble roadmap for now. We'll be doing standalone open textbooks first.

DW: How can other colleges and universities replicate your success? What are some first steps?

BM: Forming a community that includes librarians, instructional designers, and faculty seems to be a healthy approach. The very first step will always be to get a handle on what is happening with OERs currently where you are, who is aware (or knowledgeable) about OERs, and then supporting them. My focus now is on curating the training resources around OERs that our team has developed, and helping the faculty gain the knowledge and skills it needs to begin adapting OERs. We'll be supporting a number of open textbook adoptions and creations this year, and it's my opinion that we should support folks with OERs, but then get out of the way when they're ready to take to the sky.

DW: How important is "release early, release often?"

BM: Even though the saying has been traditionally used to describe open practices for developing software, I think the creators of OER content should work toward embracing it, too. All too often, an open license is placed on a piece of OER as a finishing step, and none of the drafts or working documents are ever shared before the final content is released. Many folks don't consider that there might be much to gain by publishing early, especially when working independently on OER or as part of the small team. Taking a page from Mozilla's Matt Thompson, working openly makes way for greater participation, agility, momentum, iteration, and leveraging the collective energy of folks who have similar goals to your own. Because my role at UH is to connect and facilitate the adoption and creation of OER, releasing drafts of planning documents and OER as I go makes more sense.

To take advantage of the collective experience and knowledge that my networks have, I must improve the quality of the work continuously. This may be the most unsettling part of working openly—others can see your flaws and mistakes alongside your successes and wins. But in truth, I don't think many folks go around looking for issues with the work of others. More often, their assessment begins with asking (after watching and lurking) how useful the work of others is to their own work, which isn't always the case. If it seems useful on the surface, they'll take a deeper look, but they'll otherwise move on to find the good work of others that can help them go further with their own project.

Being able to borrow ideas from and in some cases directly use the planning docs of others can help new OER projects find legs. That's part of my strategy with the UH system as well: sharing what works so that we can carry our OER initiative forward, together.

DW: How is the Open Foundation's approach for OERu of select, design, develop, deliver, and revise similar to David Wiley's 5Rs?

BM: Well, OERu's development workflow for OER courses is designed to outline the process of creating and revising OER, while Wiley's 5Rs framework is an assessment tool for an OER. You would (as we have) use OERu's workflow to understand how you can contribute to their course development. Wiley's 5Rs is more of a set of questions to ask to understand how open an OER is.

DW: Why are these frameworks essential to the development cycle of OERs and do you have your own framework?

BM: While I don't believe that any framework or guide is a magic bullet or something that will guarantee success in developing OERs, I think that opening up the processes of content development can benefit teams and individuals who are taking on the challenge of adopting or creating OERs. At a minimum, a framework, or a set of them, can give a big-picture view of what it takes to produce OERs from start to finish. With tools like these, they may better understand where they are in their own process, and have an idea of what it will take to reach the end points they have set for their OER work.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, Follow me at @Don_Watkins . Mastodon ID


One thing to emphasize is that Pressbooks is a money-making operation, especially the Pressbooks site.
Alternatives would include, as well as using Scribus for doing layout and creating a PDF, or Sigil for creating ebooks.

Thanks for your comment, Greg. I actually think it's a good thing that Pressbooks offers a paid option for hosting, updates, and support for users that don't have the expertise or resources to do this on their own. There certainly are many options for OER book creation (for example I've used Gitbook in the past), and we're seeing Pressbooks as a great fit for our OER initiative.

In reply to by Greg P

I became interested in Pressbooks when there was a presentation at one of the Libre Graphics Meetings a number of years ago. I tried it out, and indeed, it's quite easy to use (works like a blog, not surprisingly), but then got to the part about the charges for turning your book into an ebook, etc. I just felt this should have been presented up front. So it's open source, but not the FLOSS that we're used to at LGM.

In reply to by BillyMeinke (not verified)

Hi all, Pressbooks is FLOSS, see: ... for links related to the GPL software.

If you want to use Pressbooks dot com (rather than the open source software) ... it is indeed a paid service. It is "money-making" in the sense that it generates revenues that are used to pay for Pressbooks development. If you like your open source software to have developers whose job it is to work on improvements to that software, then some kind of "money-making" is necessary. I can assure you that the founder doesn't get much in the way of money making out of Pressbooks!

In reply to by Greg P

Great job Pressman!.. i love Pressbooks as its content and way of teaching is very customized and concise. The book is very nice

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