Pressbooks: Creating with students

close up of metal type set in words, set and ready to print.
Metal type, Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

In today’s post, I’ll share my experience of co-creating textbooks for my courses with students. This is one of the most fun and rewarding things I do as a teacher: take students from novice to published author in a semester. I focus on the way I embed the process in a course structure, rather than the technical side.

Table of contents:

Why?

There are many good reasons to create a book with Pressbooks! I have mainly worked with student-authored textbooks, so that’s what I’ll write about here, but you can use Pressbooks to create any other type of book. Check out the directory, and you also have to check out the wonderful micro-fiction of Laura Gibbs.

My reasons for working with Pressbooks are tied up with the issue of textbooks. I never realized how expensive textbooks were in the US until I assigned one and then saw the price. Oops! (We didn’t do textbooks the same way in Europe.)

Then every time I told someone I teach this course “China’s Magical Creatures (and where to find them)” they said “Oh you should write a textbook!” because they wanted to teach it as well but it’s not like you can pluck a textbook off the shelf. For the Korean history course, there are textbooks, but they can be pricey, and just be too much text and not enough pictures (it makes a difference, ask students). Creating OER (Open Education Resources) could also be useful to make Korean history more visible to people who wanted to learn more but did not have access to expensive books, or maybe didn’t even know where to start.

And then it dawned on me: these courses offered the perfect projects to co-create with students: students are, after all, much more experienced users of textbooks. They use them intensely in many courses, and know exactly what they like and dislike about them. I, on the other hand, use them only in some of my courses, but as a teacher, and that’s a very different experience. Do we write textbooks for students? Or for teachers?

Furthermore, students still remember what it’s like not to know anything about a topic, or which parts were really tricky to grasp as somebody new to the material. Contrast that with the instructor, who often doesn’t remember anymore those “before times”.

So right before the Spring semester of 2019, when I first heard that we had Pressbooks on campus, I decided to jump in and create that textbook everybody wanted about China’s Magical creatures… We now have the first edition of China’s Magical Creatures (and where to find them), and a first edition of the Korean History textbook available for you to peruse, and to use as a starting point for your own adventures in OER.

How

You can install the software on your own domain, as it’s open source, but I don’t know how to do that. If you are adventurous enough, follow the instructions in the Pressbooks software Documentation.

You can also let Pressbooks take care of things with an account for individuals on the platform. A basic account is free and gives you a chance to test if this is the platform for your project. To publish your book, Pressbooks now uses a subscription model, and for $12/month you’re up and running as a self-publisher. (Previously it was “pay per book”.)

I’m lucky in many regards: first, our campus provides Pressbooks as part of our Digital Learning initiative, so I just asked and got given an account, where I can create new books. We also have the Domain of One’s Own initiative from Reclaim Hosting, and I set up all my students with a WordPress website (blog) at the start of the semester. When we get to Pressbooks, the admin environment looks very familiar, because Pressbooks is based on WordPress.

I won’t give a tutorial here on how to get set up, you’ll find that the Guide provides all the useful information you need.

Just a quick tip:

Once you’ve set up the account, I suggest first working in Private, and keeping the boxes “Show in Web” and “Show in Exports” unchecked. It essentially means the book remains unpublished.

Screenshot of the editor window, showing the "Organization" tab of a Pressbook. Three areas are circled on the screenshot: Public/Private at the top (Currently the book is set to public because it is already published); Show in Web, and Show in Exports.
When first working in Pressbook, I suggest unchecking “Show in Web”, “Show in Exports” and set the book to “Private” until you’re ready for publication.

Instead of walking you through the nitty-gritty of installation and fiddling with the tech things, I think it’s more useful to talk about how I weave a Pressbooks project into the flow of a course, with anywhere from 9 to 18 students running around in a Pressbook editor, and how I prevent total mayhem.

1. Pull out your project management skills

Lay out the timeline before the start of the semester.

I like to play it by ear for a lot of my class organization but for something like this, a Gantt chart style planning approach works better. (Don’t ask me how I know.) For the Pressbooks project, I am the chief-editor, my students are author-contributors. This means I assign tasks (“assignments” in a traditional course), build in flexibility, and hold everyone accountable and coordinate so we don’t have overlap on content.

It’s a lot of work, but much more fun than reading 18 essays. (Do ask me how I know.)

This is my timeline of “bites” (small parts of the project, due throughout the semester) for the Korean history course this semester:

  • Pick topic 2/18/2022
  • Gather literature 2/22/2022
  • Refine topic 2/25/2022
  • Write abstract 3/11/2022
  • First draft 3/21/2022
  • Peer review 1 3/25/2022
  • Second draft 4/1/2022
  • Peer review 2 4/8/2022
  • Tidy up notes and citations 4/14/2022
  • Add internal links to chapters inside book 4/22/2022
  • Ready for publication 5/5/2022

(We’re already off schedule a bit but it’s ok, everybody has a topic, sources, and is thinking about how to fit things into the existing textbook and abstracts are being written.)

This gives students and me enough time to come up with viable topics that have enough material to write a good chapter, and give each other feedback, without needing a “hair-on-fire” end to the semester.

2. Show/share/use an existing Pressbook (or other OER format) as course material

If you’ve found an existing Pressbook, or created one in a previous class, share it with the students, and use it as course material. They get to see what the final product can look like, but I also point out where we can make changes.

Above all, it’s wonderful to see how students discuss the student-author in the readings for a particular week as a published author: “X says in their article/chapter that…” and I love sharing those snippets with the student-author if I can. I can hear them grow two sizes over the reply email I get.

And I then remind the current students that their chapter may well be on the reading list next time I teach the course. That breaks that one-way traffic from student’s computer to instructor’s gradebook to digital dustbin, and something clicks into a different place: it raises the stakes, but for most students the assignment becomes more worthwhile because of the broadened readership.

If you don’t have a Pressbooks at the ready, using another open text or OER can show them the benefits and relevance of the work they do.

3. Be transparent with the students

I build into the semester one session with two people who support the OER initiative on campus: Tina Hertel, our Director of the library, and Tim Clarke, Digital Learning/Instructional Design. They explain what OER are, where our project fits, and how it helps to make education better in many different ways. I think it’s important that the students hear from others on campus, that it’s not just me dreaming up this crazy idea of creating our own textbook, but that they’re now part of a bigger movement and that there is support on campus for what we do!

I also give students the chance to use an alias or write their chapter anonymously. Not everybody wants their name or work out in the open, though I have yet to come across the first student who wrote a chapter but did not want their work added to the textbook. In fact, most are excited about the prospect of publishing it, rather than seeing their semester’s work disappear into a digital drawer never to be seen again. (Looking at you, #elemess!) Students sign a basic Memorandum of Understanding, so we are in agreement about the Creative Commons License used for their chapter – and we’ll have discussed these in class, so they know what the Terms and Conditions are.

4. Build in “editorial meetings”

Taking time out of your contact hours with the students for these meetings means less time to present content. But it makes for a much smoother experience with Pressbooks, and everybody (including you!) will be happier with the final result.

A Pressbooks project is not something you do “on the side” while teaching a full regular course, because this type of assignment is likely very different from anything else they’ve done before. Here are the “editorial meetings” I use to get student input on our textbook:

A. “Textbook from Hell” vs. “Heavenly Textbook”

Confucius said: “Walking among three people, I find my teacher among them. I choose that which is good in them and follow it, and that which is bad and change it.” (Analects, 7:22)

I dedicate an entire 75 min session to figure out what the issues are that really get a student’s goat in a textbook, and what makes them return to a textbook and pick it up to study? What would they LOVE to see in a textbook? (Disregarding the issue of cost, which is not a problem for our free publication.) If we can identify those features, we avoid the “hates” and purloin the “likes” to make ours the best textbook ever.

Working in small groups, they write down their pet peeves and loves or desires on separate lists, and I have students circulate regularly between groups so they see what others think. This helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

Then we spend time brainstorming in small groups what we can do with our textbook: we’re not full-time writers and editors, after all, so there are some limits. We discuss these ideas as a class and agree on what everybody should strive to add: we found in previous years that keywords, textboxes with “Further reading” or “Suggestions for further research” were useful additions. And nobody is impressed by jargon, in case you wondered.

B. Chapter sequence meeting

Stickies are your best friend for this one. We try out different sequences, discuss the pros and cons of guiding people one way or another through the book.

After we try out one sequence, I take a photo and we start all over again. We may return to that formation later and memory is not a good guide, but we have technology on our side!

This session is also useful for students to clarify what their chapter is really about, because their peers need to know the content to make sure where in the flow it fits best, especially when we have a more thematic approach, as we do with the Magical Creatures book.

It’s a lot of fun, even when it is really hard to come to an agreement!

C. Style guide meeting

As everybody is closing in on second or final versions of their chapter, we need to make sure we all agree on the transcription system (there are two in common use in our readings for both Chinese and Korean), which terms to italicize, and other practical matters. It’s also the perfect time to remind everyone of the bibliography style you’ve chosen 😬

This is where I put my chief-editor hat on: it’s one of the few times in the project that I say what we do, rather than invite comments first and then find consensus. Having a style-sheet for reference (printed and online) is very useful.

It usually doesn’t take a full 75 min session, and the rest of the time goes into working on the chapters in “workshop” mode.

Chinese woodblock showing vertical columns of (mirrored) Chinese characters, with the "fish tail" spine in the middle to guide the folding of the page after printing. The block appears to have been inked only lightly because the wood is still very clean and light.
Chinese woodblock for printing, Wikimedia

5. Add students as editors or as author?

I add students as editors when we’re ready to start working in the Pressbooks environment (usually for Second Draft and after). We made this choice so they could add a textbox with feedback on each other’s chapters in a text box. This may change in future as I discover new ways to provide peer feedback.

There is a “revision history” available, so if somebody really undid somebody else’s work you can always go back and restore the previous version, no problem!

You can read more about the different roles in the Pressbooks guide.

6. Encourage multimedia and hyperlinks

Students usually are pretty good about adding images to their chapter, but it’s easy to forget that Pressbooks supports many more multimedia formats, for instance embedding Youtube videos. Perhaps that’s because we’re so used to a printed textbook still?

I’ve also found that it takes a lot of encouragement to get students to use hyperlinks in blog posts, even if they’re very familiar with them from daily use while surfing the web, and linking to each other’s chapters or making explicit connections is a bit of a challenge. I hope to remedy this by building in an additional “project bite” that requests them to check for connections between chapters, and add those, as well as links to other materials online. I keep telling them: we live in the twenty-first century, why can’t our textbook?

7. Join the mini ongoing “learning community”

I have an ongoing Google Doc you can join, with tips and stories of people who’ve used Pressbooks, or have questions (and answers).

It’s where you will find links to great information, including the awesome tutorial from Laura Gibbs: a blog post on how to make a Pressbook from a plain text file.

Just let me know that you found the doc through this blog post, so I know your message is not spam. Remember that adding a comment will trigger a notification, so I will remember to check that space!

Final thoughts on Pressbooks

There are many other ways to use Pressbooks, of course. I’d love to hear about how you have used, or would like to use Pressbooks. There’s a book inside all of us they say, and now there’s an easy way to get it out, and share it with the world.

Oh, and a brief addendum: Just last week, our Magical Creatures Pressbook was highlighted as part of Open Education Week here at Muhlenberg on the Digital Learning Blog. Check out the blog post 🥰

Who knows, maybe next year, your project will be featured as one of your institution’s OpenEd week highlights!

About this blog series

This post is part of the second series explaining the digital tools I use for teaching courses online, face-to-face, and mask-to-mask.

If you like this post, please explore the others in the series, and sign up for new posts in the sidebar, under the Growth Mindset Cats 😀, add the blog to your RSS reader, or check back every other Monday, 6pm CET/12 noon EST, so you’ll never miss a post!

Leave a comment with questions and requests for other similar content. Thank you! 😽

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