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EPUB for Open Textbooks

Posted on May 5, 2015

Or… Let’s build things the same way to address learner needs that are different.

Déjà Vu

Fifteen years ago a key impediment to meeting the academic needs of special education students was the inflexibility of print curriculum materials and the barriers they presented to students with sensory, physical and learning disabilities. At that time two essential components were identified to address this issue: 1) digital versions of textbooks and core instructional materials and 2) widely-adopted technical specifications for their creation.  The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, NIMAS, was built on those components. Fast forward to today.  While digital versions of print instructional materials have significantly expanded both access and usability, the majority of curriculum materials digital from the outset – both commercial and open resources – are, ironically, more rigid and less adaptable to retrofitting than their print counterparts.  Progress is being made, often following a civil rights complaint or lawsuit  intended to remind curriculum developers and adopters that learning resources designed for a mythical average learner yields predictably imaginary results.  A solution to this challenge is emerging, however, and it involves the same key components identified previously: digital content and uniform technical specifications that guide their creation and distribution.

The majority of Open Education Resources (OERs), like their commercial equivalents, are text based.  Setting aside for a moment the small percentage (5%? 8%?) of video (Khan Academy, etc.), audio (podcasts) and graphics-based OERs (Burning Well, etc.), text is still the medium of instruction. Wikieducator’s OER Handbook lists 20 text formats common to OERs, in contrast to 4 for audio, 5 for images and 7 for video, and where this text multiplicity is a benefit for content developers, it can be a liability for locating, cataloguing and using those resources.  Interestingly, PDF is not referenced in the OER Handbook’s common text formats list, and neither is EPUB (although HTML, XML and XHTML are).

Structure, Standards and Media Inclusion

PDF, EPUB and the “ML” family of formats share some important features. Documents created in these formats are designed to be “structured”, with headings, content descriptors, reading order, etc. There are international standards that guide their creation – standards for content description (metadata), layout, and accessibility, with freely-available validation tools to support standards alignment, and each of these formats is built to incorporate various media: video, graphics and audio.  As a result, content developed in any of these formats is relatively easy to locate, validate, catalog and use, and one, in particular, EPUB, has emerged as the dominant format for eBooks.

Wide Commercial Adoption for EPUB

The flexibility, consistency and utility of EPUB are documented elsewhere (International Digital Publishing Forum, for example) as are the details of the emerging EPUB variant specific to textbooks, EDUPUB.  As the majority of K-16 commercial textbook publishers have or are migrating to EPUB (or EDUPUB) for content development, the reciprocity on the delivery side has increased also with a wide range of supporting software: iBooks, Google Play Books, Readium, Adobe Digital Editions, Overdrive, Sony & Calibre among others. This cross-platform support extends to computers and mobile devices as well. For the most up-to-date overview of EDUPUB goings on, see the March, 2015 EDUPUB Phoenix report.

Wither Open Textbooks?

So should OER textbooks standardize on the EPUB format? Resoundingly, yes. The 2014 Babson “Opening the Curriculum” report rank orders a list of reasons for the slow acceptance of OERs in higher education, most notably:

“The most significant barrier to wider adoption of OER remains a faculty perception of the time and effort required to find and evaluate it.”

In K-12 settings identical challenges exist, magnified by the need to align open textbooks to the Common Core or state level standards and assessments.  A 2013 iNACOL report identified 8 states that have OER use policies in place, and while these initiatives are encouraging, they don’t represent a precipitous rush to embrace these materials. Unpredictability is an impediment to adoption.

What is predictable however, especially in K-12 settings, is a growing demand for digital interoperability – content and materials that can communicate with existing data and curriculum delivery systems so that the students who use them don’t disappear into a digital black hole. Orange County Schools in Florida and Houston ISD in Texas have instituted just such a requirement for digital resources.  The EDUPUB initiative is designed to address exactly this issue by combining EPUB assets with both descriptive and accessibility metadata and with interoperability and assessment functions. The design is to create a consistent format for digital curriculum materials that can ease their discovery by educators, offer validation of their structure, standards alignment and accessibility, and change them from inert instructional resources to materials that can report back on student use.  The image below was created by IMS Global Learning Consortium, an international organization working to advance technology to improve education, and a key player in the development of EDUPUB.  Not surprisingly, EPUB eBooks are the core content in the EDUPUB ecosystem.

The K-12 OER Collaborative Takes the Lead

The need to ensure that elementary and secondary open curriculum materials more discoverable, valid, standards-aligned and interoperable (and therefore more likely to be endorsed and used by states and local school districts) has been recognized by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), Creative Commons and others.  Supported by the Learning Accelerator, these and other organizations have formed the K-12 OER Collaborative to develop and distribute EPUB-based OERs.  12 states have indicated their support for this approach.  Of particular importance to students with disabilities, EPUB materials submitted to the collaborative for development support must meet the EPUB 3 Accessibility Guidelines.  For more information about the Collaborative’s technical requirements see the Request for Proposals.

What About Higher Education?

In postsecondary, the OER initiative emerged as an alternative to the perceived high cost of textbooks and related course materials. In higher education, every student is a market, and cost is a driving factor. Open resources have existed in higher education for nearly 20 years, many of them re-envisioned and freely distributed textbooks designed to replace the pricey commercial options.  They were predictably text-heavy and in a variety of formats (see the OER Handbook’s list of 20 text formats referenced earlier) and repositories designed to catalog and distribute them, harnessing the connectivity of the Web, soon followed.  While these repositories adopted or created metadata protocols for describing these open textbooks, there was little value associated with enforcing common technical specifications for their creation since that would have limited the widespread production of materials.  Two decades later, these repositories house multiple thousands of resources in many media formats.

While the comparative value of textbooks and their linear instructional pathways is questionable in contrast to the growing preference for more flexible and granular learning objects, open versions of textbooks and sequential instructional modules continue to be created.  Given that reality, and in the context of acknowledging the variability of today’s postsecondary students, the higher education OER community should address the benefits of standardizing the creation of open textbooks (and other applicable resources) on EPUB. There is much to be gained by both students and instructors from embracing a consistent format. The tools for creating EPUB; for validating its structure and accessibility, for enhancing its discoverability and for accessing it on computers, tablets and mobile devices all exist. For free.  OER repositories could take the lead by establishing a transition to EPUB timeframe for future submissions and further align their efforts with the K-12 initiatives already underway.

So, given the fact that the “textbook” format is likely to hang around for a bit , and EPUB has become the international standard for commercial eBooks, an additional benefit for OER migration could be the potential synergy that could occur when open resources fit smoothly into the large world of K-16 online delivery systems.  Would this expand or compromise the OER effort?

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    1. Amanda Coolidge     May 5, 2015  5:22 pm Reply

      BCcampus Open Textbooks has been working in Pressbooks which allows for EPUB export of Open Textbooks as well as a number of different exports. You might be interested in exploring Pressbooks as an option. As well, we have been working with CAPER-BC in the creation of an Accessibility toolkit for Open Education Resources- would love to hear your feedback on it-

      Also feel free to touch base with us (opentext at bccampus dot ca) if you want more info on how we use Pressbooks.

      • Skip Stahl     May 6, 2015  2:48 pm Reply


        Thank you for the heads up regarding the BCcampus Open Textbooks,Pressbooks and the EPUB export capabilities. I’ll be pleased to take an in-depth look (and thank you for the UDL language !) It looks like a terrific, well thought out resource.

    2. Amee Godwin     May 7, 2015  3:59 pm Reply

      Important issue, thanks for posting and laying it out so thoroughly.

      At ISKME we’ve been supporting EPUB files for sometime with the authoring tool, Open Author, within, which allows users to export their OER into the EPUB format. Content providers, sometimes from commercial digital publishing, expect this capability in our tool to incorporate OER into their curriculum. EPUBS are a key part of compatibility with commercial platforms/formats, and so are essential for OER adoption and sustainability.

      Open Author is designed around a structured format for extensive metadata, microdata, and multimedia. EPUB provides a standardized format that allows us to embed these features within resources, important for accessibility supports such as screen readers and other text-to-voice software when using Open Author EPUBs. We’ll be adding the ability to import EPUB files, to be able to remix within Open Author and export back out to EPUB.

      Please feel free to explore the tools and reach us with any questions.

      • Skip Stahl     May 7, 2015  4:58 pm Reply


        Thanks for the update re ISKME and It’s terrific to hear about the growing adoption and incorporation of EPUB into the OER ecosystem. I am familiar with Open Author and its commitment to accessibility – adding in the EPUB import feature will further extend a terrific resource. Thanks for the kind words about the post.

        I’m increasingly convinced that EPUB, in addition to its support for accessibility and multimedia, with its growing array of readily available creation engines,rendering technologies and validation tools, can help accelerate the adoption of OERs in K-12 and postsecondary settings. The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) Board recommended a convergence of the current NIMAS XML with EPUB 3 to the US Department of Education last year, so there’s a growing agreement across standards organizations, commercial and OER developers that a predictable base file format can be the tide that lifts all boats.

    3. Greg Alchin     September 28, 2015  6:26 am Reply

      Hail EPUB and vale PDF
      A great article! I am a passionate advocate for EPUBs and the need to move away from PDFs..
      Here in Australia
      1. The Department of Finance and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) consider the lack of accessibility support for PDF in the mobile environment to be a significant issue. In 2013, they reinforced the Government’s existing position that Agencies should publish their documents in HTML, with an accessible PDF optionally provided, except in limited circumstances.
      2. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) current advice, (February 2014), is that PDF cannot be regarded as a sufficiently accessible format to provide a user experience for a person with a disability that is equivalent to that available to a person without a disability. In fact the AHRC’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) Advisory Notes highlight that “…organisations that publish documents only in PDF risk complaint under the DDA unless they make the content available in at least one additional format and in a manner that incorporates principles of accessible document design.”