Thoughts on using open eBooks as textbooks

It’s a war of cost vs usability, cost vs reputation, cost vs instructor support, cost vs visual appeal, and cost vs basically every other consideration. Article after article floats through the news media informing us that we really don’t like eBooks (despite the fact that we buy a lot of them), and that our students don’t like them either. Yet we also know that our students don’t like to pay for the high price of traditional print textbooks, nor do they like to haul around a backpack full of heavy books everywhere they go.

The biggest complaints coming from faculty about students and textbooks look something like this:

  1. They don’t buy the books.
  2. They don’t bring the books to class.
  3. They don’t read the books.

Switching to eBooks can’t make students read, but it does take care of the first two complaints, especially if the book is a free open textbook that can be downloaded onto phones. Students do bring phones to class.

That leads us to the most common instructor complaints about students and phones:

  1. They don’t listen when they have their phones with them in class.
  2. They are too easily distracted by other apps when they use their phones for classwork.
  3. Instructors don’t know how to provide technical support for a variety of devices and shouldn’t have to take time away from teaching their content area in order to help students figure out how to use their eBooks.

Another issue many have with eBooks was addressed by the Washington Post. We skim when we read on the page. We don’t read as carefully or as deeply. We don’t follow the words in a linear pattern. Our eyes jump around, and our attention wanders. We find it more difficult to retain more than a few soundbites worth of information.

All of these concerns are real and worth considering, but when it comes to the issue of students and textbooks, I wonder if we are asking the students the right questions. I’ve seen several surveys where students were asked if they preferred print books or eBooks, and the students invariably chose print. What I haven’t seen was a survey that asked students how much was too much to pay to have a print book rather than an eBook. If the students have a choice of a free book or a $100 book, which will they prefer then?

Also, I don’t think these studies have quite taken in the hybrid nature of reading in the digital age. This is something Amazon does understand. It’s whispersync technology allows readers to switch back and forth between eBooks and audio books without losing their place. I’ve started using this service myself, and I love it much more than I thought I would.

I’ve also run into the desire to have a hybrid reading experience among my students.

This year I assigned Les Miserables. I assigned parts of it at least. This is a very long book. I’ve been teaching too long to expect students to read the whole thing. I did assign large chunks of it, though. They may not have read all 1400 pages, but they have read around 400 pages.

I gave them a choice of buying the eBook for 81 cents, buying the paperback for $6.28, reading a free copy online at Project Gutenberg (or downloading that free version), and listing to the audio version from Librivox. I was amazed by the number of students who chose to acquire the book in multiple formats.

They did not seem to like reading the book online, but many of them did choose the eBook download, and many of them seem to prefer the paperback. What I saw that was more telling to me, though, about the way students read were those who bought the paperback, downloaded the eBook, and downloaded the audio book. They platform shifted in their reading experiences in order to suit what they were doing at the time.

They listened to the audio book to get started and to learn how to pronounce character names. They could do this while doing other things. They read the eBook from devices to get caught up, read quickly, and access the book quickly from wherever they were when they had time to read. They went to the paperback to study the book, however. That’s the format they wanted to read more carefully, to mark quotes, to find page numbers for citations, and to look up questions they had about the book.

When I saw my students working in this hybrid fashion with the book, I realized that I have shifted into reading much the same way. Audio is for multitasking. Kindle is for quick reading and convenient reading. Print reading is for serious reading and studying.

So if we recognize this, and we still believe that cost is a large enough factor to drive us away from publishers and toward open eBooks, what this tells us is that we need to also offer some blended reading experiences to the students. Offer printable options. Offer audio files. Offer cross-platform downloadable file formats.

I believe that open books are the way to go, and I believe that eBook versions of open books are the most effective way to push that content out to the student, but if we are going to break away from publishers, we are going to have to also be prepared to provide our own instructional support and supplementation. Maybe this isn’t for everyone. Maybe we aren’t all there yet. To my way of thinking, though, this is what the future looks like.

Make an ebook cover using PowerPoint

I’m really excited to discover that I can make an ebook cover or an online book cover using PowerPoint. I didn’t know that I could change the dimensions of the slides, but I have just discovered that this is done by going to File and Page Setup. Once the dimensions are changed, it’s just a matter of inserting an image and some text boxes to put everything into place. The slide can then be exported as a jpeg from PowerPoint, and voila, we have a cover. Easy peasy.

I love it when solutions are this easy. If you are a Photoshop person, by all means, go on over to your favorite Adobe program, and make something fancier, but if you are intimidated by higher end graphic design programs, don’t let that stop you from making your own books, complete with your own cover design. I’m currently using Pressbooks to make books and PowerPoint to make covers. This couldn’t be easier.

Click here to read the blog post that taught me this PowerPoint trick. WilliamKing.Me goes into more detail and provides step-by-step instructions.

Meanwhile, here’s a cover image that I created using PowerPoint. It’s simple, but it gets the job done. Simple can be good.

designing ebooks cover ppt

Open Textbooks for English

I’ve decided to start a running list of open textbooks available for English classes (the ones I teach). I don’t have a lot of time to research this right now, so I will start with the quick and easy finds and keep coming back to add more as I find them.

Or, I could just go to this list that someone has already compiled at College Open Textbooks.

I don’t have time to review any of these books right now, but I do know that I plan to make “remixing” open source textbook chapters into my own class materials a big part of my move away from expensive textbooks that half the students never buy anyway.

How to Create Your Own Pressbooks Site for Authoring E-Textbooks

I just did this today on my lunch break. I thought I would need some time to figure it out, but it took far less time than convincing my cat to come back inside before I returned to work. While it is fresh on my mind, I want to write down the steps, as much to remind myself later as to share them with other people. If someone comes along who can benefit from this, that’s just gravy.

  1. You need a self-hosted WordPress account. You can’t do this on If that’s what you are using forget about setting up your own Pressbooks site, and just go to to create an account there.
  2. You need a fresh installation of WordPress MU. You can’t refurbish on old blog into a Pressbooks site. You are going to convert the entire site from a blogging platform into an ebook authoring platform. You need to have done absolutely nothing to your new installation before you start this process.
  3. You can choose the MU (multi-user) option in WordPress 4.3.1 during the installation. It will ask if you want to create a network, and you need to click yes on that option.
  4. Once you have it installed, go to the universal dashboard, and click on Plugins and Install New.
  5. Install the Pressbooks Plugin.
  6. Install the Pressbooks Textbooks Plugin.
  7. That’s it. You’re done.
  8. Happy ebook authoring!

The advantage of installing your own own Pressbooks site over using is that you can export an unlimited number of books without having to pay extra fees. You also have no limits on file sizes (unless they are imposed by your web hosting account).

WordPress and Pressbooks are both open source, so if you already have a web-hosting account, the installations will not cost anything. If you do not have your own account, and you want to use this to create materials for your own classes or to have students create class projects, consider asking your school’s IT people to install a Pressbooks site on your school server. Just be aware of the fact that in that case there may be some question about whether the materials you create belong to your school or to you.

Pressbooks is a great tool for creating and formatting ebooks. For WordPress users, the layout and functionality will be intuitive. It offers a variety of export options, including epub, mobi, pdf, and others. In addition, it creates a website for each book so that the books can be read online and/or downloaded straight from your own website.

Pressbooks Textbooks adds extra functionality to a Pressbooks site specifically designed for textbooks. For example, it has a math equations option and an ebook annotations option. It also provides open book copyright and sharing buttons to make it super easy for educators to make their materials free to other educators.

I’ve explored a number of options for ebook authoring with textbooks in mind, and as of today, this is by far my favorite.

My book site is here:

There is nothing on it yet. I said that I installed the site on my lunch break today, not that I wrote a book. I will need a few more lunch breaks to make that happen.

eBook Authoring Options for the Classroom


Why would I publish my course materials in ebook form?

Students are accessing their courses materials via mobile devices more often than through more traditional computers. Ebooks are formatted to function well on mobile devices. Many of our more traditional options for sharing materials with students just don’t work well with phones and tablets.

What format should I publish to if I want my students to download course materials in ebook form?

It’s my recommendation that you make all course packets available in three formats:

  • epub (for iPad, Nook, and most ereaders)
  • mobi (for Kindle)
  • pdf (for those rare students who are still using computers)

What would I put in an ebook for my course?

Everything! Here are just a few suggestions:

  • the syllabus
  • assignment instructions
  • reading assignments
  • sample essays or projects
  • tips, tricks, and guides
  • embedded links to video, audio, and other multimedia content
  • your own explanations of key concepts

It might also be a good idea to look for open source textbooks to borrow materials from. Try Open Stax, Open Textbook Library, or Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. You can’t sell your book if you’ve included chapters from open source books, and you might be limited on how public you can make it in some cases, but selling the book isn’t the point. What you need is a way to share material with your own students. As long as that is what you are doing, you can pick and choose chapters (or even individual lessons) from open source books to incorporate into your own lesson materials.

How do I deliver my ebook to my students?

The simplest answer to this is to upload the file into Canvas (or your LMS of choice), and make it available for students to download.

If the book is more than a course packet, and you’ve really written your own book that you want to share with the world, you might look into pushing it out to Amazon and other vendor sites, but that’s not necessarily what our purpose is in getting started with the ebook format for the classroom.

If you are using commercial ebooks through Vital Source or Course Smart, and your school already has a campus account set up for delivery, you might also be able to push your course packet out to the students’ bookshelves by uploading it into your Vital Source account. This is something you would need to get with your IT people and your company reps about. It’s an option, but it isn’t an essential option. The students can download your book into an ereader on a device if you just make the file available to them through your LMS.

How do I make an ebook the free and simple way?

Use programs you already know! Create your book using Microsoft Word, and then upload it into an ebook converter site. I recommend Liberio. This is a very simple tool. You just upload your book as a document, and download it in the ebook format(s) of your choice.

If you are using a Mac, you will not even need an ebook converter. Just create your book in Pages, and export it directly from Pages as an epub.

What if I want to work collaboratively with others on my ebook?

There are a number of options out there, with varying degrees of cost involved. You could use something like Google Docs or Dropbox to collaborate, and then have one person run the document through an ebook converter when it is complete.

Or you could try one of the ebook authoring platforms that is available.

My suggestion is Pressbooks. You can get started with Pressbooks for free (although there will be some expense if you want to publish a book without their logo on it, or if you want to publish multiple books, or books that go beyond the file size that you are allowed on the free plan). It is relatively easy to understand. It will allow you to have multiple authors on one book. It does allow for embedding media in addition to adding text. It also provides a variety of export options so that you can download in multiple format or transfer your book directly from Pressbooks to a vendor site like Amazon. It also will let your publish your book on Pressbooks, where it creates a nice online book, complete with slide buttons and a table of contents.

Another option is Booktype. Booktype offers a free trial, so you can try it out before committing. After the trial period, there is a monthly fee.

What if I want students to create their own books as projects?

First, if you do want this to happen, I already know that I love you. Thanks for being my friend.

Next, unless you want to have them create the books in Word and use an ebook converter from there, this a little more of a problem. Most ebook platform sites tend to limit the number of books you can create unless you want to pay a large amount of money. Students could all sign up for their own individual accounts on Pressbook or another site to create books, and that would probably work.

There is another option, though, that might work if you have a good relationship with your IT people, and you are willing to bribe them with homemade cookies and cases of Mountain Dew. Both Pressbooks and Booktype have open source downloadable platforms that can be installed on your own self-hosted site. In that case, you don’t have membership fees to pay. You can download the software for free and use it on your own school server (or in some other hosted account). The open source version of Pressbooks works as a WordPress plugin (the two platforms are made by the same people), and it is recommended that it be added to fresh installation of WordPress MU.

What if I just want to create an online book, and I don’t care about downloads?

You have lots of options!

You might try using WordPress or some other blog/website creator to put together an online packet.

You might also try a web authoring tool like Creativist. This is a site that makes online books and is really fun and easy to use. I made a little story about my dog using Creatavist just to try it out, and it was super easy. Like so many good things online, though, it’s free to get started with Creatavist, but you have to pay if you want to play too long or too often.

There is another site that operates in a very similar way to Creatavist that is free to use, but it isn’t really intended to be used to create online books. It’s called Storify. This is intended to be a web curating tool, where you pull in things that you find online, and make a story from them. Storify creates a webpage that looks a lot like the kind of webpage Creatavist creates. It also allows you to add text. I haven’t tried writing my own story on Storify, but I believe that if I linked it to my own Flickr account and pulled in my own media instead of “found” media, that I could accomplish something very similar to a Creatavist story on Storify, and I could do it for free.

Regardless, Storify is a great place to send students to work on projects. I’ve used it to have students do “pre-research” just to learn a little bit about their topics before working on library research. I also plan to use it to have students do some group presentations and other class activities.


Using Images in Course Materials


The photo shown above came from the site Unsplash and was edited in Picmonkey (to add the text to it and to resize it).

I feel like that might be all I need to tell you about adding photographs to course materials. If you use these two sites as your go-to resources, you almost can’t go wrong.

Unsplash provides gorgeous, high quality images for free. They are licensed under Creative Commons Zero, which means that you are free to use them however you want with no fears of copyright violations. Unsplash is the best thing that ever happened on the Internet. I see their photographs on websites and in advertisements and on book covers all the time. I just can’t even express how much I love them. I use their photographs on a regular basis in my Canvas course shells and in my classroom handouts. A great photograph can turn a blah set of instructions into something visually exciting, and sometimes that visual appeal is the little nudge that is needed to lure students in to reading the instructions.

Picmonkey is also full of awesome. It is just a basic photo editor (with pretty and creative filters), but it is very easy to use, and it is free. There is a paid version of Picmonkey, but it is very affordable, and the free version does almost everything you might need. Most often I use Picmonkey to do just what I did with the photo above. I took a large file and resized it to something more suitable for sharing in a blog post, and I added my own text to the photo in order to use it to send across a message.

Keep it weird. Keep it real.

And keep it visual.

That’s a good basic philosophy for making class materials engaging.

Other sites of interest for accessing free-to-use photographs are Morguefile, rgbstock, and Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s always better to assume that photographs we find online are copyrighted and should not be borrowed for our own purposes unless we are specifically told otherwise. These are just a few sites that do tell us when and how it is okay to download and use their images. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be borrowing the heck out of these images to bling out our courses.

Ebook Epub

Click here for a link to an epub file on creating ebooks for the classroom. You can download the file and view it in an ebook app or through Google Play.

The book is not in a highly polished form. It was put together for the purposes of giving ebook presentations, and it contains some deliberate flaws that were meant as talking points for the presentations. It also probably contains some unintentional typos because I am old and blind.

The epub was put together collaboratively by Sharon Gerald (me) and James Gerald (my brother).

RIP, all of my hopes and dreams for the PDF

I love a good PDF. This is a sample of a PDF I made for a class assignment. I made it in Pages on the MacBook using a template that came with the computer. It is pretty. It has pizzazz. It was easy to create. What’s not to love?

Descriptive Essay

I will tell you what’s not to love. This is a document that I created with myself in mind. It fits the way I read online. It appeals to my sense of design. It is for someone who works and learns like I do: on a computer.

Unfortunately, that model just doesn’t work for students anymore. They do most of their online browsing from their phones. I have always loved the PDF because of its fixed graphic format, but that’s the very reason that it is no longer the best format for classroom materials. Fixed formats are good for computers, but they are not good for phones. PDFs are just not that readable on phones. They might still look pretty, but they aren’t readable in any truly efficient manner.

Move over PDF. The future of classroom handouts is ePub.

We have to meet our students where they are, and that means we have to deliver material in formats they can easily access. For smartphones, that means ePub and other ebook formats.

PDFs are still great for conference handouts and workplace documents meant to be shared with people who also work at computers all day, but they just aren’t what our students need anymore.

No one hates to admit that more than I do. Rest in peace, my beautiful and long-lived relationship with the PDF for classroom purposes.

Chasing Digital Rabbit Trails

I just ran across a blog that I set up in 2007 for a presentation at TYCA-SE. It refers to a presentation that I did in 2005 on blogging for TYCA-SE. I am now preparing to give a presentation called “Ten Years of Blogging” at TYCA-SE. This will be my third presentation on blogging for the same conference then. I didn’t remember that until I found the blog with the evidence, so I’ll just go ahead and add “a digital record of scholarly activities” to my list of things that a blog can be.

My blog projects trail off in so many different directions at this point that it’s no surprise I can’t remember them all. I would be embarrassed by this fact if shame were not such a waste of time that could be spent in additional public self-reflection.

I must say that working on this presentation has been an interesting look back at my own history.

As the day of the presentation approaches, I expect to do a little more meta-blogging, and a little more linking back to my own previous blog posts and blog projects. Come on over and hang out while I do it. This will be like watching someone sort out ten years worth of vacation photos.

A Domain (or a blog?) of One’s Own

This is an interested talk about a university’s push to get a domain name and web hosting for every student.

Two main points really struck me from the talk.

1. We want to give students a sense of ownership over their own web real estate and/or their own web presence.

2. We want to push students into discovering “the deeper possibilities of the web.”

There are, of course, possibilities that go far deeper than the blog, but I do think that for students who don’t have access to web hosting, a free blog account can be a good place to start learning deeper possibilities than can be found on social networking sites alone. Maybe a blog address is the community college student’s “domain of one’s own.”

I wish that my school could get every student a domain name, but for now I will settle for requiring all of my students to register a blog address.