And the Best File Format for Open Textbook Publishing Is . . .

What is the best file format for publishing open textbook materials? Bill Fitzgerald and the Open Knowledge Definition (as well as others in the OER community) both stress the importance of using formats that allow for easy remix.

I agree that this is an ideal toward which OER community should strive, but there are many considerations that make this a difficult goal to achieve. Personally, as a more practical goal, I am satisfied with the minimal expectation that open textbook materials must

  1. have some sort of Creative Commons licensing
  2. enable teachers and students to share and print the texts.

Nevertheless, how does one choose a file format for open textbooks? Some file formats are more suitable for composing and others for publishing, depending on the rhetorical situation. Here are some considerations; I'm sure that there are many more and nuances to these that I have ignored:

  • Accessibility to Students. This should include the usability of a text by the visually impaired with screen readers. But it also can include how easily the text can be downloaded and read offline by teachers and students without disabilities. A text which is completely web-based is less accessible for some student reading use. For example, students might use traveling to campus on a bus as study time using a laptop (students don't typically have 3G Internet) or print copies. Some student populations have no Internet access at home, and in some countries, maybe even not at school. School Internet firewalls may also be an issue.
  • Composing of Original Materials. The average teacher is most comfortable with composing in a word processor. If teachers believe that they have to write in HTML, fewer teachers will be authors of open textbook materials.
  • Collaboration of Multiple Authors. Certain technologies for composing and publishing are more conducive to large scale collaboration. For instance, wikis would support collaboration on large texts among many authors better than trading word processing files by email.
  • Remixing/Revising by Individual Teachers. Once again, the average teacher is most likely to be most comfortable using word processing for reworking the text to improve and/or to mix parts/all of an existing text into materials that the teacher already has or wants to create for use in their class.
  • Ethos. A text well-designed and formatted with desktop publishing tools can produce a text that looks like a book (or, better, ends up being published as a book), giving more credibility to the text. When open textbooks are published by reputable print publishers, this increases the number of teachers in higher education who can/will contribute to open textbook publishing since the book has more ethos in tenure and promotion review. Moreover, I suspect that teachers-as-adopters—and even students—will be likely to give more authority to a text that looks—and prints—like a well-designed print book. PDFs have the advantage here.

At Writing Spaces, we publish in print and PDF. The PDF is easily generated from InDesign and that is the format that goes to the printer and gets shared on the web. It takes a lot of work to prepare the texts for formatting in InDesign. Volunteers for editing and formatting are a scarce resource that have to be considered as a factor in open textbook community production. At some point, if we get more people involved in the project to do the necessary text production, I would choose the open standard .epub because

  1. it works with ereaders (well, except for Kindle but Amazon will adapt at some point to the open standard)
  2. it is basic HTML formatting that can easily be inserted into a web content management system and styled with the system's CSS.

Then again, if the primary goal is to facilitate remixing/revising of content by teachers, at the exclusion of all other priorities, as much as the designer in me hates to endorse it, the .doc file seems the obvious choice. It's easily shareable, printable, works across all word processors fairly well, and it's the composing space in which teachers spend their writing lives.