Framework for Online Books

CW: Looking down the road a short distance and considering current initiatives like 1:1 devices and BYOD, Hamilton anticipates most of its curriculum residing and being delivered online. While still in the early stages of development, we intend to use a combination of tools to develop online textbooks. This is our current framework.

Some Must Haves

  1. We need a format that will work offline.
  2. We need a format that works on all devices. Device agnostic.
  3. We need a format that incorporates multimedia.
  4. Gotta be open-source. A consistent rule for the district.


  • OER = Open Education Resource.
  • Creative Commons = type of license that allows general use of content (there are different flavors of Creative Commons)
  • ePub3 = open standard for eBooks.

Authoring Tool

Apple tried to make a splash with their iAuthor tool a year or so ago. The problem was that iAuthor exported its file in a semi-proprietary format that only worked with iBooks. This violates one of our “must have” rules. Recently iAuthor added the function to export books as ePub3. Still, you need a Mac in order to create content on iAuthor.

We decided to go in a different direction with a tool called PressBooks. PressBook uses WordPress as its core infrastructure. Both PressBook and WordPress are free and open-source. And well documented. Pressbook advantages are:

  1. Multiple authors.
  2. Is web based. So it will work on any device.
  3. Exports created books in a variety of formats. ePubs3, PDF, Word, XML, and Mobi (Mobi is used by Kindle).
  4. Also has a core plugin called “textbooks” that adds features for the creation of Textbooks.

How it Works

Composing a Chapter in PressBook.

Composing a Chapter in PressBook.

We host Pressbook on our own server. Users login to Pressbook and are assigned authorship of a particular book. Using WordPress’s intuitive editor, they create chapters and sub-chapters within a book. Each chapter is technically a WordPress post.

Once a book is finished, readers have two ways of accessing the book:

  1. Via the website. In essence, the book is a series of web pages.
  2. Download an appropriate eBook file. We use ePub3 because its an open standard. Readers can then read it on their favorite eReader (ie Kindle, iBooks, Google Books, Calibre, etc.).

One of the super cool things about PressBook is that you can import ePub3 files. For example, you can download the ePub of Hamlet (say, from Google) and upload the ePub to PressBook. Then you can mix, match, recreate chapters and scenes with your own created content. This is key when thinking of creating eTextbooks.


A demo of PressBook can be viewed here:

The Next Level

Because we’re nerds at Hamilton, we add a few additional elements to the framework. After a book is finished, we publish it to our portal. Students add books to their library using coupon codes (similar to add themselves to a Google Classroom). Using an additional (and very awesome program) called FuturePress, students can use their browsers as an eReader.

Collection of Processes: 1) Writing, 2) Listing, 3) Reading

Collection of Processes: 1) Writing, 2) Listing, 3) Reading

What About Google Play for Education?

We had a helpful conversation with Google on using both the Google Play Books app and API as well as Google Play for Education. We wondered what it took to get a book listed in the Google Play for Education store? The short answer is that the book needs to be in the public domain and you need a connection within Google.

What about working with publishers for content?

The short answer for this was that it’s messy. Most districts wouldn’t want to go down that route because an eBook is technically a license (not a product) that’s usually renewed yearly or assigned to a particular user. Over the span of a number of years, a physical book is cheaper than an eBook.

That said, Amazon appears to be ahead of the game with this option. Their WhisperSync allows you to buy licenses of a book and assign them to users. The downside is that you can’t use Google’s SSO with Amazon (which isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but makes for a rather large headache on our coding end).

Big Picture Goal

Over the next few years, we’d like to collect and create eTextbooks using as much Open Education Resources we can find. These resources will be created and merged with PressBooks. Published versions will reside on our portal linked to student accounts. Published ebooks will also be linked to our Curriculum Modules (also part of our portal).

That’s the goal at least! We’re starting small yet building.


Using Open Badges at Hamilton

We’re exploring a new way of tracking professional development and learning. The internet has quite profoundly changed the way we learn. Skills and questions are really one Google (or Bing, or Pinterest, or Instructable, or Tweet) search away. Learning happens. Constantly.

But how do you quantify and demonstrate that learning? If you say you know how create a retro loop player on your upright piano using a Raspberry Pi, how might you prove it? And can you incentivize the learning?

These are the questions Open Badges attempt to answer.

What’s an Open Badge?

Open_Badges_-_LogoAn Open Badge is a digital representation of a skill or achievement earned from a creditable organization. Earned badges can be displayed in professional portfolios, Linkedin profiles, and various social networks like Facebook and Google Plus.

Badges contain “meta” data. It’s not just a simple “picture” that you can throw on your website. Instead, it contains certain “proofs” to give the badge actual veracity. Think if it as roughly analogous to “certificates of completion”.

Here’s a basic example. Say Hamilton CSD creates a “Login to Google” badge. If someone has this badge, it means they are capable of logging into Google. The badge would contain the following information:

  1. Issuer (in this case, Hamilton CSD.
  2. Name of the badge
  3. Associated picture of the badge
  4. Description of the badge
  5. Criteria for earning the badge (ie login to Google)
  6. Evidence. Proof that you’ve done this badge. In this case, a system that recorded you demonstrating logging into Google.

Where’s the Value?

For our students, badges often serve as simple extrinsic rewards (Khan Academy uses them to incentivize learning). For adults, badges are a really solid way to demonstrate to employers (future or otherwise) skills they are learning and acquiring. A more real and relevant component to a resume or portfolio.

Using Badges at Hamilton

We’re piloting and exploring correlating badges to CEUs. When a badge is earned in PD, the badge may have an associated CEU. In this regard, it takes the place of a certificate of completion.


Credly and Tracking Badges

We track badges in our system. But we’re also using an external creditor called “Credly”. Credly is completely optional for folks to use. Think of Credly as a “backpack” that collects your badges. You transfer those badges anywhere (your Facebook profile, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), but they’re first stored at Credly.

If you’d like to use Credly, you will need to sign up for an account. It’s free. And again, completely voluntary.

Be Less Helpful

Dan Meyer – my favorite math teacher to follow on the internets – ran an interesting presentation that focuses on a great pedagogical concept:

Be less helpful.

I’m simplifying a bit, but the main idea is to set your students up with the puzzle, and then let them wrestle with it. Don’t give students answers. Rather, get them to ask more and more questions. Then see what they discover.

It might be a coincidence, but Dan fellowshipped with Google. Google recently released this excellent video. I highly recommend viewing. A good end of the week conclusion.

Facebook, Trust Engineers, and 1 Billion People

On August 24 , 1 billion people accessed Facebook on the same day. That’s 1/7 of the world’s population. This bears a moment of contemplation and question: What does it mean when 1/7 of the world logs into the same the site on the same day?

This isn’t a scaremongering post or a melancholy reflection on a desire to become a Luddite. I love Facebook. It’s a wonderful way to stay connected to my widely spread family and friends. Back in the day (which for me, was the 90s), I used to write letters (especially when traipsing and living through South America). And while letters are cool in all their nostalgic permanence, my Mom would rather see cute videos of her grandkids making Mickey Mouse pancakes. Most of Facebook is inane. But it serves as really good social glue.

Still, there’s a massive amount of power in the platform.

For Social Scientists, Facebook is the El Dorado. Buried in the gazillions of interactions, posts, reactions, social norms, and data are fascinating correlations and conclusions. Because there’s so much data, questions can find answers like:

  • Who might be a good marriage match? Who might be heading for a divorce?
  • What makes people happy?
  • When is mental health is taking a turn for the worse (before obvious signs).

One conclusion might be to ask can we engineer human behavior through Facebook?

Back in February, Radiolab ran this incredible podcast called “The Trust Engineers“. In their own words:

When we talk online, things can go south fast. But they don’t have to. Today, we meet a group of social engineers who are convinced that tiny changes in wording can make the online world a kinder, gentler place. So long as we agree to be their lab rats.

Ok, yeah, we’re talking about Facebook. Because Facebook, or something like it, is more and more the way we share and like, and gossip and gripe. And because it’s so big, Facebook has a created a laboratory of human behavior the likes of which we’ve never seen. We peek into the work of Arturo Bejar and a team of researchers who are tweaking our online experience, bit by bit, to try to make the world a better place. And along the way we can’t help but wonder whether that’s possible, or even a good idea.

Take a listen. It’s a fascinating podcast.

You have a platform that, in theory, could nudge folk. And nudging 1/7 of the world’s population is a bit mind bending. What kind of society could be created? Who shapes the directions of the nudges (right now, at least in most of the world, democratic governments create such “nudges” when they fit societal goals)?

Questions to ponder as I launch the blue icon.

Feature Image "Facebook Connections" by Michael Coghlan. Creative Commons.