Pressbooks – a user review

Let me paint you a picture of book production in the 21st Century – in most cases, it’s very similar to book production in the 20th Century. Cambridge, for example, still uses a linear workflow where the editor works on the manuscript and then, once ready, passes it on to the typesetter to lay the book out. A series of back and forths then ensure between typesetter and editor, who marks up a PDF with corrections and changes for the typesetter to implement. Once the editor and publisher are happy with the product, the typesetter produces a print-ready PDF, and your book is published. Oh wait, you wanted an e-book as well. Let’s start a whole new process where we convert the print PDF to epub, with an added round of checking and proof-reading to see that the conversion process didn’t drop any content (it happens!). Now you want to edit or change something? Let’s go back to the editor and typesetter to fix this and back to the digital producer to make the change in the e-book. It’s (very) exhausting.

Which is why I was so excited to test out O’Reilly Media’s online publishing platform a few years back, developed in-house and used to manage their book production. The platform had a dashboard where you could create a new project and import a manuscript, stored in a database. The editor and author would both have accounts on the platform and could work simultaneously on the document. While editing, changes are saved in real-time, with a record of all changes kept. The editor can reverse these changes if needed. Any images could be uploaded directly to the platform and inserted in the book. The book designer (in this case, someone with web technology skills) would design a template for the book using CSS. This CSS would have options for the print version of the book as well as the e-book. At the end of the process, a printable PDF or epub file would be exported, for printing and distribution. If there were any changes needed, the editor could log into the platform, make the edit and export the files could quickly and easily. For me, this seemed like an ideal workflow for book production. Unfortunately, Cambridge, like other traditional publishers, has legacy systems in place, and the effort to switch over to this type of platform was more than the perceived benefit. This experience did, however, get me excited about alternative ways of producing a book and I set about exploring some of them, one of which is Pressbooks.

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Let’s talk about e-book formats

For a little short of five hundred years, Cambridge University Press has been printing books. When it came to decisions around format, the options were simple – what size paper and whether to print full-colour or black & white. For a considerably shorter time, we’ve been publishing e-books. Here’s what I’ve learnt about e-book formats in that time.

The e-reader

The first thing that’s different about an e-book compared to a print book is that you need software to access it. We call this software an e-reader. Some people get confused between the e-book and the e-reader, thinking they are the same thing. The e-book consists of the book’s content as well as some functionality, such as a hyperlinked table of contents. The e-reading software includes functionality such as bookmarking and note-taking as well as display manipulation

This e-reader could be an app on your phone or tablet or embedding in a browser on your laptop. A browser is an interesting analogy to use to understand the e-reader. A browser takes the HTML code of a website and presents it in a way that is easy to read. In the same way, the e-reader takes the e-book file and displays the components in a way that is easy for the user to interact with and read. The e-reader is also responsible for the digital rights management (DRM), limiting copying and multiple-access to the e-book as well as access periods for subscription sales. These restrictions are significant for commercial publishers.

There are several standalone e-readers available as well as proprietary ones. Some will support more than one format; others are limited to a specific format. Cambridge has an e-reader as do many other publishers. Amazon is the dominant player in this market with its Kindle e-reader.

Cambridge uses two e-book formats, PDF and EPUB, both widely used in educational publishing.

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Digital skills for the new world of work

At the annual Innovation Africa conference, many African educational ministries speak about readying their learners for the 4th Industrial Revolution and developing new digital skills to advance their economies and create work for their citizens. Yet these skills are for some an undefined issue, which many education ministries are attempting to solve by providing digital content and devices to schools, in the hope that these skills will be acquired as a “side effect” of technology usage.

However, it may be time for educational authorities to take a more overt approach and, rather than merely encourage the learning of 21st-century skills, introduce new teaching topics that position learners more robustly for opportunity and success in the new economy.

Digital citizenship

“Digital citizenship” sounds like having a sort of passport to the digital world, but it’s actually something quite different. Think of it as the behaviour of following the laws, mores and protocols of social and public interaction with other members of society, except in the digital world. Let’s look at some definitions:

“The capacity to conduct oneself in a responsible and ethical manner within public digital environments (Khosrow-Pour, D.B.A., Mehdi, 2018).

“The practice of legal and ethical behaviour:
1. advocate and practise safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology

2. exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning and productivity

3. demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning

4. exhibit leadership for digital citizenship” (Isman and Canan Gungoren, 2014).

“Students understand human, cultural and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behaviour” (International Society for Technology in Education).

Dr Mike Ribble an American technology director and published author worked on the concept of digital citizenship for over a decade, and defined nine key digital citizenship themes:

  • Access: full electronic participation in society.
  • Commerce: electronic buying and selling of goods.
  • Communication: electronic exchange of information.
  • Literacy: the process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology.
  • Etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure.
  • Law: electronic responsibility for actions and deeds.
  • Rights & Responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world.
  • Health & Wellness: physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world.
  • Security (self-protection): electronic precautions to guarantee safety.
Digital citizenship would say that having a bitter feud on Twitter is just as unseemly as having a screaming match over the telephone.

Teaching digital citizenship practices to learners is essential because, just as we wouldn’t send young people out into the wider world without equipping them with the knowledge to look after themselves I public, and to treat other peoples’ feelings and rights with respect, so we cannot send them into the digital world without doing the same.

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What skills will be needed in the coming years?

Today we are living in the midst of what some have named the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The first was, of course, steam power in the 18th – 19th century. It was followed a century later by the age of mass production, revolution two. Then the digital revolution arrived, spurred by the advent of the personal computer and then the Internet in the latter 20th century. Now comes the fourth wave, also called industry 4.0: an era where converging and interlinked advanced digital technologies change the way we live, work and interact. This is the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR), machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). 

 Let’s assess some of the broader skills learners should develop to thrive in the workplace – and everyday society – of tomorrow.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking may be defined as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (Robert Ennis, May 2011) and also “thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to make your thinking better” (Richard Paul).

It means being able to make progress with any task or challenge, even when the right answers or the way forward are not completely clear. 

Critical thinking involves a high degree of testing and assessment, open-mindedness, and a trial-and-error approach. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie are all famous examples of critical thinkers from history. Their work involved years of exploration, questioning, testing and failing before they were satisfied they had found the answers that changed the world. In the academic world, philosophy is one of the purest expressions of critical thinking, because it prioritises profound questions over concrete solutions – something that would probably drive a computer mad (if it had the capacity for emotion, that is). 

Computers can analyse mega data in seconds, but there is also immense value in the human capacity to simply ponder and question – often for a very long time.

Critical thinking has always been the fundamental skill that leads to progress in any endeavour, but why is it so important in the age of 4IR? Because, while automation and artificial intelligence will gradually take over more and more menial activities from humans, the human ability to think outside the box, innovate and make judgements – sometimes based on instinct – will be vital in complementing the automated work. 

For this reason, forward-thinking companies today are prioritising critical thinking just as much as technical and digital knowledge in their workforces. To tie critical thinking back into everyday life, here are some common examples of critical thinking in action:

  • Renting or buying a house: Is the price fair? Is the area safe? How long has it been on the market? Will my family be happy here? Am I basing the decision on logic or emotion?
  • Choosing a career: What am I most passionate about? What are my skills? Will this career be in demand in ten years? How important is money versus happiness?
  • Managing a team: How can I get the most out of the team? Which management style works best? How do I get the right balance between team happiness and productivity? Is there a better way?

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Preparing learners for the future of work

What will the working world look like for the schoolchildren of today?

Let’s try and paint a picture of human society in the mid-latter 2020’s – around the time many of the learners you are teaching may be entering the workplace. There are not one, but two, significant factors that will be shaping the way we live and work by then — digital technology, of course, but also global warming.

With scientists predicting, by 2019, that the Earth was nearing a tipping point for extreme climate change, governments and the private sector are finally starting to tackle the challenge on a significant scale. There is no doubt that a multitude of future jobs will be created against this context in fields like chemical engineering; environmental science; seismology; marine biology; geology; urban planning; geographical information systems (GIS); hydrology and renewable energy. 

Today’s learners should be made aware of the hardships global warming is set to bring us, from rising seas to extreme weather conditions – but also the career opportunities for those who join the quest to solve these things.

In the battle against global warming, digital technology will undoubtedly play a significant role, from data analysis and programming to 3D modelling and automisation. Meanwhile, as digital technology increasingly filters through broader society, what other jobs are likely to be in demand by the mid-2020s?

Future colleague? (Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash)

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