Write and Publish Your Book with PressBooks

As we have explored digital writing and publishing in previous posts and workshops, the focus has been on short to medium length texts, such as blogs and Google Docs, with which most academics are familiar. But when it comes to book-length manuscripts, you may not be quite as informed about the options for digital publication. This week, our AC Digital Pedagogy workshop will introduce you to Pressbooks, a platform developed for web-based and e-book publication, and designed in particular to permit open access, an open peer review process, and the collaborative production of open textbooks. Our workshop times will be as usual…4:30 pm on Tuesday, and 1:30 pm on Friday, in Abell 102.


As a book publishing platform, Pressbooks competes with alternatives such as iBooks and Scalar, but with some notable advantages. It is actually a specialized version of WordPress, so the interface and dashboard layout and functionality will be quite familiar to WordPress users. You can use a free hosted version of the software at PressBooks.com, where you can be up and running in a matter of minutes. While you can create books for free on PressBooks.com, when you output the final PDF or ePub version, there is some PressBooks.com branding and watermarking, though with upgrade options you can remove the watermarks and increase storage capacity.

However, with access to a self-hosted version of WordPress (such as acdigitalpedagogy.org, or acsites.org, or your own WP version), you can roll your own PressBooks installation, because it’s actually just a particular theme in WordPress that is activated via a plugin. Still free in itself, this version of PressBooks also allows you to maintain the book as an HTML document or export it to .epub, .mobi (Kindle), and .pdf versions, as well as various formats designed specifically for printing. Epub is the most flexible and open format for e-books, and displays smoothly on various screens and e-readers. It does not display natively on the Kindle (which uses Amazon’s proprietary .mobi format), but you can either export a .mobi version of the book for reading on a Kindle, or use the free e-book management application Calibre to convert the .epub file to .mobi. Calibre is an outstanding tool for management a collection of e-books and other long-form digital publications, supports all major formats, and gives you a wide range of features. It probably deserves its own post and workshop, but if folks are interested, we can talk about it this week as well.

As noted above, PressBooks incorporates support for a collaborative and open process of writing, editing, commenting upon, and annotating the text. Some instructors are making use of PressBooks as a platform for textbooks, including textbooks that are produced in collaboration with students. For example, Robin de Rosa of Plymouth State University describes how she worked with students to create The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature. In the context of describing her practices of open pedagogy and the creation and use of open educational resources, de Rosa observes that, when it comes to textbooks, students are particularly well-situated to create, and not simply consume:

People often ask me how students can create textbooks when they are only just beginning to learn about the topics that the textbooks cover.  My answer to this is that unlike many other scholarly materials, textbooks are primarily designed to be accessible to students– to new scholars in a particular academic area or sub-specialty.  Students are the perfect people to help create textbooks, since they are the most keenly tuned in to what other students will need in order to engage with the material in meaningful ways.  By taking the foundational principles of a field– most of which are not “owned” by any prior textbook publisher– and refiguring them through their own lens, student textbook creators can easily tap their market.  They can access and learn about these principles in multiple ways (conventional or open textbooks, faculty lecture and guidance, reading current work in the field, conversations with related networks, videos and webinars, etc.), and they are quite capable, in my opinion, of designing engaging ways to reframe those principles in ways that will be more helpful to students than anything that has come before.

So if you are interested in exploring your options for writing and publishing a book, either on your own or as part of a larger project, join us this week for some conversation and demonstration.


Digital Publishing With Scalar

scalar-logoThis week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Digital Publishing with Scalar,” will occur Tuesday, October 6, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, October 7, from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).

This week we explore Scalar, a new web-based digital publishing platform. Several instructors here at AC are experimenting with Scalar this semester, including Nate Bigelow and Mike Fairley in their CI classes, Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan in Introduction to Buddhism, and Dave Griffith in an upper–level marketing course. Like WordPress, Scalar is a free open-source application that is server-based and that facilitates the creation of multimedia content and projects on the web. While there are significant similarities between the two, Scalar is particularly suited for the production of free-standing long-form projects that incorporate large amounts of rich media (images, video, audio, maps, timelines, etc.) within the format of a “book,” though a book reconceived in a native-digital format. As the trailer below states, Scalar projects might be thought of as a cross between an e-book and a website:


Among the features highlighted by early users of Scalar are the following:

  • Well-suited for group assignments, in which students work together to produce a single, collaborative deliverable. All versions of a project are preserved, and every user contribution is tracked.
  • Incorporates full commenting and annotation functionality on all forms of media
  • Operates with a “flattened hierarchy,” in which all forms of content (pages, media, comments, annotations, tags, paths) have an equal status and can be interrelated in structures designed by the author.
  • Allows a variety of page layouts and customizable styling options
  • Full control of project accessibility, from private to restricted to fully public.
  • There are agreements with several major digital archives (the Internet Archive, Critical Commons, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others) that allow Scalar to easily incorporate digitized materials into projects with full permission for fair use.
  • Material may also be easily imported from other Internet repositories and file storage sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, and SoundCloud, as well as local sources.

You can see some examples of Scalar projects at this showcase gallery. While none of the projects at Austin College are in public mode yet, you can begin to experiment with Scalar if you wish by creating an account at scalar.acdigitialpedagogy.org. Come to the workshop, and we’ll walk through some of the basics together.

Curated Resources

Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning

WebWritingCoverUMich2015-02One of the richest resources for digital pedagogy that we have seen recently is the new book, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. The book is a collection of twenty essays that “explore why online writing matters for liberal arts learning and illustrates how different faculty teach with web-based tools for authoring, annotating, peer editing, and publishing.” Originating in a faculty initiative at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College (Connecticut), Web Writing, edited by Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, was published by the University of Michigan Press in March 2015 as an “open-access” text that can be read for free online (a print edition is forthcoming, as well). The essays represent a broad range of scholarly disciplines, but are all grounded in the classroom experiences of liberal arts teachers:  “The richness of the book is that it represents authors from 15 colleges across the liberal arts curriculum who demonstrate how they use writing in disciplines like biology, history and sociology and across platforms to improve student motivation and learning.”

As the Introduction to the collection explains, the project was conceived as a conversation among liberal arts faculty who actively engage with writing in their classrooms in multiple disciplines but need guidance on ways that web-based tools can contribute to our educational missions:

Web Writing seeks to bridge philosophical and practical questions that arise from the experiences of liberal arts educators who have stepped into the digital realm. What are the most—and least—compelling reasons for why we should integrate web writing into our curriculum? Which tools and teaching methods deepen—rather than distract from—thoughtful learning? How does student engagement and sense of community evolve when we share our drafts and commentary on the public web? To what extent does writing on the web enable our students to cross over divisive boundaries, and what new challenges does it create? The book’s subtitle signals our desire to blend “why” questions with examples of “how” it can be done, presented in both print and digital formats.

Whether in persuasive essays, scientific reports, or creative expression, all academic disciplines value clear and compelling prose. The act of writing visually demonstrates our thought processes: how we respond to ideas that challenge our own thinking, consider alternative perspectives or counter-evidence, and create entirely new points of view. As college educators, we recognize that our students become more engaged in the writing process when they draft, share, and respond to writing with a community of peer readers who encourage and challenge them to revise muddled first drafts into more polished, thoughtful essays. Moreover, we now realize how a new generation of web-based writing tools—including wikis, Google Documents, WordPress, and others—can transform how our students author, edit, publish, and comment on texts in ways that advance, rather than distract from, our liberal arts mission. But exactly how college educators can make use of these tools in our classrooms is not simple, and requires both time and support from our institutions. Our motivation behind this book is to offer faculty a wide range of web-based writing examples across the liberal arts, to help all of us to rethink our current approaches and inspire us to innovate with our own students.

A perusal of the table of contents reflects the breadth of the topics addressed and their grouping under four category headings:

table of contents

The project practices what it preaches–the essays were composed and revised in an open space on the web that invited public feedback and suggestions for revision. You can read about the process in the Chronicle article “Call for Open Peer Review: Web Writing.” The WordPress plugin CommentPress facilitated this method of composition. In fact, you can still read the original drafts of the essays, along with comments, to get a sense of how reader response and feedback helped to shape the revisions of the texts.  The results of this experiment were transformative for the authors:

As educators, our compelling reason for constructing this book online is because that’s exactly what we ask our students to do when we assign them to share their writing with us and other readers. Every educator who requires students to post their words on a course learning management system (such as Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) or the open web should try the same experience by uploading their own writing for feedback from peers and the public. For many of us, our first experiences in publicly circulating drafts was equally terrifying and exhilarating. The process opened our eyes to how our writing changes when engaging with a broader audience, particularly one that talks back through comments that suggest new connections and sharpen our thinking. We hope that Web Writing will encourage more faculty to author and comment online, and that these experiences will transfer into richer forms of teaching and learning in their classrooms.

And now, even though the essays have been published in “final” form, the text continues to invite commentary, discussion, and annotation. A newly developing “open annotation” tool known as Hypothes.is is being used as a platform for continued conversation and dialogue. I’ll have another post up soon to introduce Hypothes.is more fully, but for now, if you’re interested in experimenting with it, there’s a helpful tutorial by Greg McVerry in this post, “Three Tools to Annotate the Web.” The project also offers many appropriate examples of “collaborative open spaces” on the web that I spoke about in a previous post.

One of the initiatives being developed at Austin College involves “Written Communication Skills.” The charge of this project is that “Austin College will develop signature opportunities to enhance writing and other communication skills through curricular and co-curricular programming. By 2020, every graduating student will be able to demonstrate achievement and improvement in these areas.” Perhaps Web Writing is one resource that we could use to generate conversations and ideas to move us forward in this endeavor. Maybe it could be a choice for a faculty reading discussion group next year? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Tell Me a (Digital) Story

DigstoryProcessAt yesterday’s Johnson Center luncheon we discussed digital storytelling and also took a look at Scalar, a “free, open source authoring and publishing platform that’s designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online.” More specifically, we thought about how digital stories could be further enriched by being situated in an interactive context such Scalar.

The most common form of digital storytelling produces a video of three to five minutes in length (or perhaps somewhat longer), consisting of a voice-over narration of a sequence of images or slides or short motion clips, with transitions, perhaps accompanied by a musical soundtrack. Most often these stories are produced with programs such as Windows MovieMaker and Apple’s iMovie. Effective stories require careful attention to narrative arc, voice, point of view, tempo, audience, storyboarding, and other elements of vocal, textual, and visual communication.

A culture and practice for digital storytelling has developed at Austin College, particular among students participating in travel abroad programs such as the Go Fellow and JanTerm study trips. A good number of the stories produced in the last several years can be found on the AC YouTube site; look under “Playlists,” for example, to see Go Fellows digital stories for 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

An excellent resource for digital storytelling ideas is the website, Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling at the University of Houston. You might check out their “7 Elements of Digital Storytelling” as well as “8 Steps to Great Digital Storytelling,” for starters. There is a helpful section on tools and software, and a gallery of digital stories covering a wide range of topics. Another helpful site for resources is the Digital Storytelling Library Guide at Mercy College.

Specific tutorials guides that I would recommend include Making a Digital Story in iMovie ’11 and Digital Story Production Using Windows Movie Maker.

Several of our Mellon Digital Pedagogy projects, such as those of Elena Olive’, Julie Hempel and Terry Hoops, and Kirk Everist, involve aspects of digital storytelling. We look forward to learning more from them about the creative uses of digital storytelling and publishing in their classes. In the meantime, if you’d like help with a project of your own, just let us know, and we’ll be happy to help.

Cool Tools–Scalar and Omeka

DP@AC is happy to offer AC faculty the opportunity to experiment with two powerful new tools for digital scholarship and pedagogy.

Scalar is a digital publishing platform created by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, based at USC. According to the developers,

Scalar is a free, open source publishing platform that’s designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online. Scalar enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and juxtapose them with their own writing in a variety of ways, with minimal technical expertise required. Scalar also gives authors tools to structure essay- and book-length works in ways that take advantage of the unique capabilities of digital writing, including nested, recursive, and non-linear formats. The platform also supports collaborative authoring and reader commentary and annotation.

Here’s a quick video introduction (also, for a showcase of projects authored with Scalar, go here):
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Omeka is also a web-based digital publishing platform. Developed by the Roy Rosenweig Center for History and New Media, Omeka is particularly designed for publishing collections and galleries of digital media in an open-access environment.

Omeka is a next-generation web publishing platform for museums, historical societies, scholars, enthusiasts, and educators. Omeka provides cultural institutions and individuals with easy-to-use software for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. Free and open-source, Omeka is designed to satisfy the needs of institutions that lack technical staffs and large budgets. Bringing Web 2.0 technologies and approaches to historical and cultural websites, Omeka fosters the kind of user interaction and participation that is central to the mission of public scholarship and education.

Religious Studies professor Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan and her students and other partners utilized Omeka to create the acclaimed project, “Mapping Cultures,” a Mellon-funded digital humanities project on Tibetan cultures and cultural preservation.

Again, here’s a video trailer, and a link to a showcase of Omeka projects:
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If you’re interested and would like to learn more, just let us know…we can do individual consultations or small workshops as desired.