Watch the video recording of this Office Hours session, or keep reading for a full transcript. For those interested in reading the conversation that took place among participants and the resources shared, the chat transcript is also available below.

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Audio Transcript

Office Hours: Writing Math and Science Textbooks


  • Apurva Ashok
  • Karen Lauritsen
  • Oscar Levin
  • Amy M. Balija
  • Delmar Larsen

Apurva: Hello everyone and welcome to Office Hours, I’m Apurva from the Rebus Community. And I’m very excited for our session today. I am joined by a few representatives from the Open Education Network, I have Karen Lauritsen who’s my co-host, Barb Thees and Craig Sandler. I will quickly mention that Rebus Community, for those of you who don’t know, is a charity that is based in Canada.

We offer programs and resources to support open publishing efforts, and we’re really excited to hear from three people who have been involved in various different kinds of publishing initiatives today. We’re going to be talking about writing math and science textbooks. And I’ll turn it over to Karen to tell you a little bit more about our topic for today, and our guests.

Karen: Thank you, Apurva, and hello everyone, it’s great to be here with you. I am Karen Lauritsen, I’m publishing director with the Open Education Network. We are a community of professionals who are working to make education more open. And as Apurva mentioned, today we’re going to talk about creating math and science textbooks. If this is your first time at Office Hours, I’ll introduce you to the format.

We have three guests who are here, they will each speak for around five minutes, and then we’ll really look to you for questions and conversation. We want to know what you need to know. So, you’ll have an opportunity to unmute or post your questions in chat, whichever works best for you. I will also go ahead and put a link to a form in the chat shortly, inviting you to tell us what you want to talk about at future Office Hours sessions. So, help us drive these conversations.

So, without further ado, I will introduce our three guests. We are joined by Oscar Levin, he is associate professor school of mathematical sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. We’re also joined by Amy Balija, assistant professor organic chemistry at Radford University. And we’re also joined by Delmar Larsen, who is professor in the department of chemistry at the University of California Davis. He’s also the founder and director of the LibreTexts project. So, we will start by turning things over to Oscar.

Oscar: Thank you, and thanks for the invitation to be here, this is very exciting. I got into OER stuff my very first year at the University of Northern Colorado, I taught a discrete math class. And I wasn’t in love with the textbook, it was just basically a series of lecture notes and worksheets that the professor had asked Wiley custom printing to spiral bound for him, and then was being sold by the bookstore for $70 for this maybe 150-page photocopy.

I thought I could probably do better, so I decided to write my own stuff. And I was just going to do that, but then I heard about the OER initiatives and how people were sort of self-publishing books as a way to disseminate their work. And also, to make them look nice. So, I spent a few years turning it in a book, this is the current website for it. It started as entirely done in LaTeX, which worked fine.

But then, I heard about PreTeXt, which at that point was called Math Book XML. And this is a markup language kind of similar to LaTeX but it’s actually written in XML which perhaps is a little bit intimidating, at least initially. But it produces really nice output formats, so I wanted to show you a few of the features that I really like about it and talk a little bit about why I think having this sort of source format of a math textbook is valuable.

So, this is a page from my book. And you can see that I think the layout is very nice, this is all generated automatically from the XML code, if you’re familiar with LaTeX it’s the same sort of process. You write the markup in just plain text, and then you compile it into various output formats. And this is just the output format for HTML. You can also compile PreTeXt into LaTeX and then into PDF, if you create physical copies of it.

In addition to the nice layout, the nice math that is done in MathJax, which is very good for screen readers, a lot of attention paid to accessibility, the headings are the right thing for example. You can tab through this in a meaningful way, if you have a screen reader. We have nice features like the solutions to examples being hidden and then revealed when you click on it, then hidden again.

You have things like in the exercises you have different types of elements, so you have the pretty blue boxes that you can get. The exercises again, you have solutions that are hidden by default. You can also put answers and then have them in the back of the book, but that’s all done automatically for you. So, in the source that you write, you put the statement of the exercise and the solution right next to each other, and then you can tell PreTeXt to compile it so that those go in the back of the book.

Or maybe are not included at all in the final output. My book also has some WeBWorK questions, so you have some interactivity there, you can think what this should be, N squared, I can check my answers, that’s not correct. I didn’t think at all about what that might be. So, we have lots of those features. You get an index automatically, you just tag in the source what things should be in the index.

And this is an example of a situation where the open book is probably better than a physical textbook that you would get. You want to know what ancestor meant? Well, there’s the paragraph where that’s defined, and you can get to that by just clicking on this and you don’t have to jump back to the page and search for where on the page is that, for example. You can click on in context, and then it will navigate you to that spot in the correct part of the textbook.

This is an Abstract Algebra textbook that I’m teaching out of right now, by Tom Judson. I wanted to point out these cross links here, in example 3.9 he uses Proposition 3.4 and if you were a math textbook, well what’s Proposition 3.4? If you click on it, it’ll have Proposition 3.4 right there for you. In fact, it even has the proof of it there which you can also expand, for example.

This textbook is especially nice, because it has Sage embedded inside the textbook, so Sage is an open-source competitor to MATHLAB or Mathematica. We can have code specifically ready for the students and then they can just evaluate it and they can modify the code too. So, I want this to be entered as nine, I could do that and then I get a different output there.

I know some of you are interested in graphics, this is the mathematics section here, let’s see. I know I’m short on time here. Let me show you some of the graphics that we can get. So, this graphic which I can drag around here just by clicking on it and moving my mouse, this was created in Asymptote inside the source of the textbook and you just put in a figure command, and then you just write the Asymptote code.

10 lines of Asymptote code, directly in your source. So, this way if someone else wanted to take your textbook and modify it, they could modify the source easily. You get a slightly different image in their version of the textbook, if they would like. You can put interactive elements in the textbook. This might take a long time to load. Things authored in JavaScript, you can link in specific JavaScript.

You can get GeoGebra applets embedded. In this case, there’s even a little calculator that you can pop up. I think this is set up to be a GeoGebra calculator, it’ll pop up here in a second. So, you could use a GeoGebra calculator directly in your textbook. So, there are lots of nice things about this in terms of the output format. The input I think is perhaps a little intimidating because you have to write XML.

I should say and I should have made this clear at the beginning, I did not invent PreTeXt, I’ve done very little with PreTeXt, I’ve just used it. I have worked a little bit to try to make PreTeXt easier for people to use. So, if you use visual studio code, for instance, I have a plugin that I wrote that allows you to get a lot of the messy markup structure much easier. You can just expand it with some basic shortcuts.

So, the source can be intimidating, but I think having the source and the markup available and editable is very useful. You can take individual parts of one textbook and move it into another textbook, include it in different textbooks. And you can do that all at the source level, then the output looks very seamless and consistent. So, that’s my pitch, I know I’m out of time, I’d be happy to answer questions later, but thanks for listening.

Karen: Thanks, Oscar for walking us through you PreTeXt textbook. I will now turn things over to Amy to describe her project.

Amy: Okay, thank you, Karen. So, I’m Amy Balija and I am again, at Radford University. And this is actually my first time at Office Hours. So, it’s exciting to hear all about the cool things that are going on. And I’m going to go a little bit different, it sounds both my colleagues here are talking more about textbooks, but we need to also look at other things like the laboratory, especially in the sciences.

In the sciences one of the things that are big for us is to write laboratory reports to record our information down. And so, at my institution, one of the things I started noticing with our students is they just could not afford your typical lab notebook, it’s just essentially a spiral bound notebook. And initially how I got into this, because I didn’t really know anything about OER when I first started, I got an internal grant for a program called LabArchives.

And essentially, it’s an electronic laboratory notebook, where the students would be able to write down information in their computer that of course most students have or at least they have like me my cellphone right there, sitting there. And that they could go and record that information and I could look at that. Problem is LabArchives cost $20 per student. And it’s about the same price as what I would pay on the paper copy.

And so, therefore, what I decided to do was the Virginia Library Association has something called the VIVA Grant. So, anybody who’s in Virginia can do this. And what they have is they’ve set aside money for people to be able to adopt, adapt, or create OERs. And so, I as well as two colleagues, one in the biology department, another one in chemistry came together and we decided to go with a program called eLabFTW.

And it’s kind of exciting I can share the screen so you can get an idea of it. And there’s some electronic open source notebooks available, this is the one we decided on, which is eLabFTW. This is actually done through somebody in Paris. And he keeps it updated, and what’s great is that everybody gets a chance, you can download this, you can modify it any way you want, and then he encourages you to actually bring it back up to his website.

And so, we can continue to get these updates and changes of the different programs. And so, the idea for this system if you want to see this here is I’ve got to move my little screen over. So, this is an example of the electronic notebook. And what’s so great about this electronic notebook is one, students can use it on their PC, their Macs, their iPads, their phones, pretty much anywhere you want.

So, they can have it at all times. Another great advantage for this type of system, it’s free for the students. And how I’ve set this up is that to keep security because you can start to see, I am actually using this also in my research labs as well, is on my local network. So, I’ve worked with IT to be able to put that on the network, it’s on a single sign in system, so my students don’t have to worry about trying to go through something, or somebody trying to go into our system accidentally.

And so, I’ll bring it down to one of the things that we’ve done. So, this was a chemical reaction, and what my students can do is I have a template all ready for them. And they can come in, and they can fill this information in. So, we have amounts, milligrams, millimoles, things of that nature. And I’ve indicated what I want them to be able to write down. And then, they’re writing their procedures.

We might have some conclusions, my students can put in pictures, and so you can put the mathematical equations, you can type that in, it’s a little bit more time consuming, but students can upload pictures, they can upload files, Excel files, pretty much almost anything they want. They can draw chemical structures on this program for people who are interested in chemical structures.

And at the same point, they can comment or I can comment on their work, and I can allow sharing between students. So, I can control all of this information, so it’s a great collaborative effect, it’s also getting our students prepared for the field, not just in chemistry or biology, but whether they’re going to the pre-med track, whether going into jobs, or anything like that. They need to understand the technology. So, I can talk more about this, but I notice that I’m also out of time. But I appreciate you guys listening.

Karen: Thanks, Amy. We appreciate you walking us through the electronic notebook. And now, over to you, Delmar.

Delmar: Thank you. Okay. It’s difficult for me to figure out what to talk about. So, I wear multiple hats. So, I’m a chemist, which means obviously I teach chemistry. I am the founder and the director of the LibreTexts project. And if you googled anything in anything, you come across our site. So, we just reached 500 billion page views last week. That’s with a B. And we have approximately 1 million pages per day and we have currently 4 millenia of student reading.

And we’re growing hyper exponentially right now. But also as an instructor, I not just facilitate and build OER but I also use it in the classroom, which means that I serve a different beast than many of the other directors out there. And then, I’m also co-director of an OER program at my campus, being a large University of California campus is going to start to expand into the greater infrastructure in California. So, I’m excited about that.

So, I figure that my take was supposed to be talking about my experience in building a book. Now, the thing is I’ve built a handful of books, used in a variety of my classes. In fact, five years ago, six years ago when I got back from sabbatical, I told my chair that I was never going to be using a commercial book again in any of my classes. And that basically made my life really painful for several years, as I needed to do what I refer to as riding the wave.

Which was building the book at the same time that I’m using the book, which is an unbelievably painful process, at least the first time that you’re doing it. So, let me mention just the LibreTexts, one slide on the LibreTexts and then I will transition into my experience off of that. So, the LibreTexts project is actually part of a greater ecosystem that I refer to as the LibreVerse.

And it has a core content of libraries, which are based around a wiki-based technology that we then augment with a variety of different features, in fact most of the features that Oscar mentioned we have available. And a few of the features that we don’t have that PreTeXt has, which I really like their technology, we are going to come out soon off that.

But we have this ancillary set of components that are part of our LibreVerse including a homework system, running it summatively involving either WeBWorK or IMathAS, which basically OHMs technology from Lumen or MyOpenMath. With H5P and such in a more summative approach. We have a Jupyter notebook system which lets us run 30 different languages of executable code bound into our text.

Including Sage Math, which Oscar mentioned but Python, R, Octave and a handful of other languages, most of which I’ve never heard of before, to be honest. We have the ability to store a range of JavaScript servers, learning analytics. We have a bot server in order to go through the content in order to update the content in the libraries based off of current or new accessibility requirements, forms and a few other things off of that.

And I could talk for a very long time, in fact right now I’m in the middle of a Libre Fest which is our meeting that we’re doing this quarter off of that. So, let me jump into my class I’m teaching right now, which is my quantum mechanics class. So, the key point that I think we all agree on here is that the textbook of the future involves technology and it needs to bring in advanced features in order to be able to enable that.

And I use my textbook quote unquote as an integration between a textbook and a learning management system, where I have a component that’s an agenda that students can go to in order to identify what they need to do and read off of that. I have my textbook here, I have lectures and I have worksheets. And this is for example the textbook that I have created, I could take it, spit out in PDFs and physical copies and a variety of other formats off of that.

So, for example, the Schrodinger equation particle in the box you can click to it and go through it. It has full searching capabilities and interactivities and we’ve been going through and manipulating the figures to be SVG, so they’re fully vectorized and scalable and such like that. But then, you want to be able to do some advanced features, so this is executable code for particle in a box.

So, this is running Python, which I can then engage in a more Socratic investigative approach where I have questions and students can come in and the kernel died out, so it’s going to take a few seconds in order to pull up the kernel, because it’s a massive infrastructure and activity. And I probably didn’t do it in the right order, so I would need to refresh it.

We can also embed interactive code, this right here is a particle in a two-dimensional box, I’m getting very quantum mechanical, where you can change quantum numbers and you can see the sync up between the wave function and the learning thing. This is using CalcPlot3D, which is a different technology than what was discussed in Oscar’s talk, but it has similar features off of that.

We bring these things all together as learning objects, so they can go into a repository in order to identify the content. Pick and choose and build your textbook as needed. The last thing I’ll mention is the homework system, this is the homework system, I’m logging in as a student because if I log in as an instructor, you’d see names, and that’s a violation of FERPA and such like that.

So, this is the homework system that essentially acts as an attraction layer that we use different technologies behind it. So, we have MyOpenMath, WeBWorK and H5P and there are other technologies that will be embedded into it. And the idea is that each one of these technologies has its own unique implementation, its own grade book, its own LMS and some of them are painful, some are poorer developed than other ones.

Some are actually not even fully accessible, like most of H5P examples don’t meet accessibility requirements in California and other things. And other technologies come out here, so what we do is we essentially gut everything, have a central grade book that’s able to use different technologies as needed. And it’s the same technology. So, as an instructor, you have the same interface that you work with as a student you have the same interface, irrespective of the technology you use.

So, in other words, you pick the technology, you select the technology that’s useful for the specific question that you want to use, and you don’t need to worry about the complexities of using one versus the other. Obviously, there are issues making those problems, which is a very technology dependent system, but this provides a centralized infrastructure in order to facilitate its adoption, adaption.

It runs summatively, we can bind them into our pages, in this case here we’re independent or outside of it. And then, you can go into this is an H5P problem that’s embedded into it. These are largely open-ended questions, because we both can grade them online but also provide the opportunity for more advanced questions that you really can’t do automatically. But I wanted to implement it into our system, so that students can upload answers, keys and start to grade off of that.

So, I will end, I’m sure that was a few minutes than I needed to talk about, and I can certainly into any of these discussions as they do. Thank you.

Karen: Thank you, Delmar, and thanks to our three guests. So, this is when we turn things over to the 35 or so of you who are here with us on the call. Please feel free to unmute or post a question in the chat. While you do that, I’ll get things going and ask of the three of you, have you had conversations with your colleagues or others who might be interested in OER and if so, how do you pitch or explain the tools that you use in your classroom? Or how do you talk about that with your colleagues as something they might want to explore?

Amy: Okay, so yes, they definitely know. So, we have here, we got an HHMI grant to work with trying to give more accessibility to our students working on more students being able to feel welcome within it. And so, this is something that I talk about a lot with faculty, they’re involved in that, and this is your math, science classes and things like that. I think they are excited, they’re still waiting on what’s going on here.

But whether I’ve done this or I’ve been working with I do still use a traditional textbook, but I have dramatically cut the cost of that textbook for these students now. So, now it’s more of a low OER rather than no cost. And so, yeah, the conversation is very, they’re more curious than anything else and they’re cautious at this point. But I think it’s positive.

Karen: Thanks, Amy.

Oscar: Our department is very pro OER in general. In fact, the math department just won the State of Colorado zero textbook challenge award for this year, the first time it was offered. So, we do a lot of stuff. But I think that it started because of a few people who thought that it was a good idea from mostly a cost saving perspective, right? We see our students struggling with the decision of whether to buy a textbook or buy food that week.

And that’s not a good idea to make them make that choice. And then, students don’t buy the textbook, or even if it’s a cheap textbook they can’t get hold of it right away, then they’re behind. So, those kinds of issues were really a good way to sell try an OER textbook. And then, showing them that there are really good ones out there, that are better perhaps than the commercial counterparts, even, I think is a good way get people to look into them.

Karen: Delmar, sure, I invite you to speak to that, and then, also there’s a question from Stephen Bell in the chat asking what Adapt means? He hasn’t noticed that before.

Delmar: Yeah, it’s still new. In answer to buying in, there is no one successful buy in mechanism as probably everyone on here knows. The different clientele, different colleagues have a different reception associated with that. I would be lying if I said that my colleagues in my department are overly receptive to OER, which is not the case. So, it’s an uphill battle that I’ve had for a long period of time.

And I expect it to be an uphill battle largely in large R1 institutions, where their priorities are oftentimes focused at least not necessarily exclusively, but certainly significantly toward research rather than education. So, in order to answer that question, that’s a multi-hour thing to do. The guiding principle behind how we operate is that we have a team of undergraduate students, or at least a guiding principle, that are involved in what we call harvesting, which is bringing in existing content that we then update and augment and improve as needed.

But those students also provide an opportunity in order to do let’s call it grunt work activities for faculty. So, when a faculty has an interest and says, “Well, I want to do it, but it takes too much time.” Then, I say, “That’s fine, here is a student and that student will do as much of the grunt work as possible in order to move it forward.” So, the idea in order to make this thing work on our level is to remove as much pain as possible if we’re doing that.

And that requires building an infrastructure that’s easy to use, easy to manipulate, easy to find the content. And so, that the students don’t have to do that. The next step is to get buy in at the dean level in order to provide top-down encouragement for that. And some deans are more enlightened than other deans in OER in order to pursue that. But we’re slowly making progress on my campus.

And we saved millions of dollars so far just on our campus alone, but it’s such a large campus, we have lots of opportunity for expanding. There was another question, what was the other question? I’m sorry.

Karen: Adapt?

Delmar: Adapt. So, Adapt is a project that’s supported by the State of California, we got the grant at the start of summer, and we’ve had the intent in order to build a homework system for a long time. In fact, it was part of this grant that we were seeking from the Department of Education two years ago, but we were slowly moving forward because we didn’t want to just replicate the wheel.

We can bring up WeBWorK and run it or bring up iMath and run it exclusively. We wanted something far more powerful, more flexible, in order to handle the future rather than the present. So, that took a little bit of time. This grant that we received was designed in order to do two things, is to build a homework system that introduces adaptive learning into it, that’s freely available for students.

So, we have an infrastructure which I didn’t show, that we can build learning trees. So, we can start to identify assessments, remediation nodes, whether they happen to be text or video or even Socratic interactive systems. And start to build an infrastructure you can think of it simplistically as a choose your own adventure story that basically follows through the needs of the students based on their responses off of that.

And that’s available now, we’re four, five months into it, and we already started testing out in my quantum mechanics class. The second thing which is exceedingly important and we’re very excited about is to start to implement culturally responsive pedagogy into the infrastructure that we’ve put into here. So, you can start to provide contexts, so when you have videos not every video is an old white guy talking about science, which is invariably almost everything that’s involved in science.

So, start to bring in the greater context of marginalized scientists that have been marginalized because of their gender or their race or their ethnicity, nationality or even their sexual proclivities. And start to try to realign the homework system, we’re going to then fold that back into the textbook system, so you have this thing. But you need to do it so that it doesn’t get in the way and it’s not contrived.

And a lot of the things are just largely contrived stuff that many faculty just throw away from the textbooks because it gets in the way of what we’re trying to do as a scientist, obviously in sociology books it’s a different story. So, the idea is to find the right mix of trying to introduce it, but not make it so students and faculty say, “No way Jose.” So, that culturally responsive component is being baked into our system.

So, for example, when you have a question that focuses on PH dependent solubility of lead, if you’re not up on it, that’s a common ion effect system. I’m not going to switch into a lecture. But that’s particularly important when you want to talk about what’s going on in Flint, Michigan and the minority population that’s adversely affected, because they’ve dumped a massive amount of lead into the pipes because of the PH of that, politics aside.

So, you can start to provide lots of context off of that with these problems. If you do it right so it’s not getting in the way, I think we can start to augment agency, self-efficacy, and hope to try to reduce this leaky pipeline that we have of minorities, as they start from undergraduate school to the time that they actually become professors or professional individuals. That’s Adapt, you can contact me, I can certainly tell you more about it.

Karen: Thanks, Delmar. Also, a question from Stephen was about whether or not students are at all interested in print versions of these resources that any of the three of you have created and provided? And if so, are they available and how do students get their hands on print?

Delmar: I think Oscar was commenting on that.

Oscar: Yeah, if you can create a PDF version, you can self-publish it through a variety of print on demand services. I use Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing and it sells on Amazon for $14.50. Students can have a physical copy of it, some of them like that. My book though doesn’t use a lot of the interactive features. One thing you can put in these books is you could put a YouTube clip of you doing an example right in the textbook, which is fantastic.

But then, what I don’t know, and I still need to figure out is how do you write a textbook that has that but it is still valuable as a print textbook that some students want? So, that neither really has an advantage or is missing out on features. I just don’t know the right way to do that.

Karen: You’re not alone.

Delmar: So, my answer to that question is how we do it. So, when we have the videos and we spin up a PDF of those videos, we put a QR code on top of those videos, so you can actually scan it in in order to do it. But you’re right. The complexities associated with multi-modal typesetting and distribution is exceedingly painful in order to be able to deal with that because of interactions. And you’ve got to deal with that with some smart ways in order to do that.

Let me mention something about our system. Any book that’s put into our system, whether it’s constructed by authors directly on it, or that we’ve integrated it in from existing systems, and we have an older version of Oscar’s book, and we want to get the newer version. And we have an importer set up for PreTeXt we just haven’t implemented it, because everything, I can blame Covid, can’t I? Is that good enough?

So, when that book is compiled, when it’s ready to go, we have a range of outputs. PDFs, common cartridges for embedding a learning management system, but more importantly, any book that we put into here goes into our automatic bookstore which actually facilitates purchasing a physical book of that. And that happens directly, and this is my internet is slow or something’s slow here.

So, you can get a physical copy of your book, for example, here’s my quantum mechanics book that I have here. And this one here costs $10. And this book cost is too big for Lulu Express and we need to be able to expand it. So, any book that for example 90% of Open Library has integrated, at least the links go out to the resources. It’s integrated within our platform, so you can come in and you can get a PDF of that.

And it’s all rendered and typeset in a variety of ways. You build a book, it automatically gives you the opportunity to spit out a PDF, give a link out, and then students can directly purchase the book at cost. That way we don’t need to handle any issues associated with non-commercial clauses of our content. Minus 5% for keeping it up and such.

So, we’re very happy about the printing capabilities that’s on the fly and automatically given to any resources that we have available. I’m sorry, I wasn’t planning on talking about it, so I’m still looking around for it.

Amy: So, I know for us and it’s interesting how you guys are doing it. We’re not allowed to let our students go to an outside source like this. We are actually required to have our students go to the bookstore, and so of course the bookstore is going to charge a lot more for a printed copy. And it’s in our contract, and so it’s interesting, how do you get around those issues?

Karen: Great question. There may be people here who can speak to that in the chat or by voice. In the meantime, I’ll also toggle over to Anne Marie’s question in the chat, which is related I think to this print question. And that’s whether your campuses address student hardware, software and Wi-Fi access gaps? Where she lives, they have limited broadband in so many areas, so offline reading is a necessity for some.

Delmar: You want me to go?

Karen: Anyone is invited to speak to it.

Delmar: I just don’t want to dominate the conversation. I tend to do that for some reason or another. So, we take offline access to content very seriously and we have a range of different mechanisms in order to facilitate that, both in action or what will be coming out in the near future. So, one can argue obviously that PDFs is one mechanism to do that, but you lack a lot of the capabilities, the things that make the textbook of the future the future.

And physical books have the same issues off of that, that’s technically an offline dissemination mechanism. We have constructed and this is developed in order to try facilitate dissemination to developing countries. What we refer to as a LibreTexts in a box, so it’s essentially a Raspberry Pi box, I was looking for a photograph of it, and it’ll take me a minute to pull it up and I have a limited amount of time.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with Raspberry Pi, it’s essentially a computer that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s not a very powerful computer, but it’s still a computer. You can load it up with the right technology in order to basically put our entire library on it. And then, you can mail it out to people. So, if you’re in a developing country that has absolutely no internet infrastructure, you can get this box.

And if you have a Wi-Fi available device, you can plug this in and then you can access this and it could be in a classroom in order to be able to disseminate that. What’s clear with the Covid situation is that there are a lot of students in America that have limited internet access, either because the infrastructure is not there, or they don’t have the money in order to purchase it.

So, there’s a need in order to be able to implement these sorts of things. What’s going to be coming out soon are two other manifestations of offline on our system, one is LibreTexts on the phone. Which is an app that you can actually then download, but more importantly it’s not like downloading a PDF, it downloads everything that you can run with JavaScript on our technology that doesn’t require server side capabilities.

So, unfortunately WeBWorK and IMath require server side capabilities. Theoretically H5P does not, but it’s not designed in order to operate like that. But a lot of the other JavaScript technologies that you embed into it, you can then put into it, so you can pull in your phone and you can use the activities that you have off of there. We have a collaboration with EduWorks, which is an organization in Oregon in order to make what we call Pebble Books which will be EPUB3.0 compliant books.

So, has those JavaScript components into it, which has largely still been ignored in EPUB outputs. And that also includes all the MathJax and the equations in order to make Oscar’s equations look pretty, which is important, that’s integrated into that. And then, I’ll shut up.

Karen: Well, thanks, Delmar. It’s great to hear all of the different ways that LibreTexts is looking to support learning. And Marilyn mentions another one in the chat, which is Rachel, which is there with a link. And I just want to invite again anyone in this call, not only our three guests, if you have insight or examples about how your institutions or institutions you know of are addressing these issues, please feel free to share them in the chat.

There is another question here from Melanie. She is asking what’s available for organic chemistry in terms of open homework systems? She’s heard the need for a good drawing tool is there. And that it’s often not part of existing homework systems and can be a barrier to adopting open textbooks for organic chemistry. So, anyone in the call who would like to speak to those homework systems?

Apurva: I see Amy nodding, so this might be a great chance for you to jump in, Amy.

Amy: Well, yeah, I mean, I agree, there is not. I have looked pretty much with all these systems, and I haven’t seen anything yet. We’re very fortunate our university purchased a university-wide license for ChemDraw. So, we have ChemDraw, and our students can download that. But yeah, you’ve got ChemDoodle and stuff like that, but all of that stuff still is there’s some money involved. So, I’ve yet to really see anything unfortunately, that’s one of the things I wish would change.

Apurva: Delmar, is that on the roadmap for you folks?

Delmar: Yeah. So, I should mention, ISIS/Draw or whatever ISIS/Draw became is freely available and I’ve published multiple papers using ISIS/Draw without requiring—but anyways, open OCHEM is probably the most advanced OER based organic infrastructure out there. It’s still a little clunky in its implementation. So, as part of this grant that we got from the US Department of Education is to build all the OER textbooks to supplant the textbooks for an American Chemical Society degree from start to finish.

So, that includes the general chemistry, which is largely taking care of, although we have to revamp a lot of the things for R1 institutions. Organic chemistry is a bane in my side, I’m a physical chemist, not an organic chemist, if the quantum mechanics didn’t tell you that. But we also have a team for inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry and biochemistry, which is actively [inaudible 0:42:53].

By the time the grant is over in two years, we expect to have a pile yea high that can take the place of them. So, the organic chemistry people are 100% concerned with the original poster’s question here. The Adapt homework system is designed to deal with what I call Frankensteins. So, you can embed different things in order to be able to make new systems up, which it took me a moment to pull it up.

So, we have an example where we can embed JS Mol or JL Mol capabilities. So, you can have two enantiomers and then you can have a different system like WeBWorK or H5P that asks questions regarding it below there, so they’re interconnected. That right there gives you the ability to do about 80% of the sort of questions that are typically involved in organic chemistry books.

The problem is the questions that are in organic chemistry books are actually not nearly as good as they should be, because you need to have more advanced capabilities for making mechanisms and reactions and things like that. And that’s very complicated to be able to implement, but there’s certainly pushes off of that.

My intent is that I have a sub-team of that sub-team focusing on organic chemistry problems, bringing it into the Adapt system so that everyone can capitalize and use it. I expect to be able to test drive parts of that this summer, whether it’s early summer or late summer, I do not know.

Karen: Thanks, Delmar. Oscar, you spoke to the learning curve, although you may have used a different term for PreTeXt, can you talk a little bit more about your experience writing and creating the book? Were you “riding the wave”, as Delmar said and writing it as you were teaching it or did you spend some time before teaching it?

Oscar: Yeah, the book evolved over a number of semesters teaching the course. And every time I teach the course, I have a problem, and I have to just admit that I have a problem that I always want to mess with the book whenever I teach a course. The last time I taught discrete math, I decided to completely reorganize the topics and do graph theory before counting. So, I wrote a new version of the book as I was going.

So, that’s just apparently the way that I like to teach my classes. Initially, I wrote it all in LaTeX, which I was very familiar with, and then to get it in this newer format, I spent a summer to really learn how to do that and use some automated conversion tools to get me most of the way there. And now that it’s in that nice format, now it’s really easy to add things as I go, or to rearrange things because I’m familiar enough with the format that it’s just copying and pasting code here and there.

And pointing to different things and pulling something from this other course that I taught that’s kind of similar and dropping it in in the right place. So, I think having good source allows you to ride the wave whenever you want to while you’re teaching and to make things refined. In fact, this semester I’m teaching graduate level graph theory class and I only have eight students, but the way we’re running the class is that we are together writing our own OER graph theory book.

And everyone is contributing proofs of various things in PreTeXt, I had to teach them how to do that. But they were able to figure it out in the first couple of weeks, so now they can all write stuff, they submit pull requests to GitHub, it’s all managed there. So, we’re creating this book, in a very inquiry based learning format, really, I think this is what open pedagogy should be, right?

You’re using open source ideas to actually improve your teaching. And so, that’s really riding the wave, since we don’t have a textbook to start with and the students are doing it.

Karen: And how many students are you working with on that project?

Oscar: It’s just eight students in the class, it’s a small graduate class. I’m not brave enough to try it with a larger undergraduate class, yet.

Karen: And when you moved from LaTeX to PreTeXt, was there anything you were especially excited to say goodbye to in LaTeX? Or anything you were especially sad to say goodbye to in LaTeX?

Oscar: So, there is certainly a difference in philosophy. LaTeX, even though it’s not a what you see is what you get editor, you have a lot of control about I want to make this word bold, for example. In PreTeXt there is no bold command because bold is about presentation, and your source should reflect the content. So, instead you say, “This is a term that we’re going to define or this is something that needs to be emphasized.”

And then, the processor determines what that should look like. I think that’s very important, because different formats are going to have different ways of marking it up. One new leading edge feature of PreTeXt is you can now basically convert your source into Nemeth Braille. So, you can create a complete Braille version of a textbook, something that normally costs $50,000 to get a publisher’s textbook transcribed into Braille, you can do at a push of a button now.

That’s only possible because the source is marked up in a completely semantic way, without any formatting. But that takes a little getting used to, because if you’re used to saying, “I want this to start on a new page, so I’m going to have a command that says new page.” Well, then you have to figure out how not to do that when you’re writing your materials. But I think it’s for the best.

Karen: Yeah, I appreciate how you illustrate the trade-offs, that some authors may be frustrated at not being able to word-by-word format text, but the pay-off of having everything at the source level is exactly as you said, that it’s much more flexible and has greater integrity and structure.

Delmar: Let me mention, that’s a beautiful statement. I would leverage that to a pet peeve that actually underlies much of the LibreTexts project in that PDFs are the opposite of that. We should not be storing our content on PDFs because we can’t do the sort of utility that’s offered here. And far, far, far too much of OER content out there is PDFs, that’s why my team is ripping them apart in order to put them into a semantic infrastructure where you do these sorts of things.

Karen: Yeah, it’s true, there’s a difference between openness by license and openness in terms of technology and flexibility. Amy, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your students interact with the notebook and if anything changed when you started using the notebook? Have you noticed any sort of pedagogical or engagement differences with your students?

Amy: Yeah, I’ve definitely seen a difference. I think the students are actually more excited to go and work with the electronic notebook than the paper notebook. They actually probably know more about the electronic notebook than me, because they found ways to do colors, and bolding things. And you still want a traditional format, but at the same point they can write things that are kind of more what they want.

And my goal, right now, because I teach organic chemistry is not to have them be the perfect scientist. I want them just to be excited about science for my students. They’ll get that in physical chemistry and biochemistry and the upper level sciences. One of the other things that I’ve seen is that they are spending more time wanting to understand the material, ironically, even though it’s a paper.

There’s not much difference between what I’m doing in the paper and the electronic. But I’ll get a lot more questions, “How do you do this?” Or “How do you do this calculation?” Or “I’m looking at this data.” Some of the students actually were even uploading videos, they loved seeing a reaction occurring, so they videotaped that. And then, they put that on there, so the engagement level went up I saw in terms of that.

Grading wise, I liked it there’s things on there that I haven’t completely explored, but if you’re concerned about students maybe writing in their lab notebooks after a certain time, you can put deadlines on there. You can put timestamps, so that when they’re writing things and so I’ve kept it a little open in that, because the first few times they just want and need to get comfortable with the program.

But the learning curve for them is very flat. Even though it’s a new program, it’s an app, and these students understand apps, they don’t understand coding unfortunately at this point. In general, most of the stuff has been positive, only one or two have complained to me that they wished they went back to the original format. And I’ve been doing this now for five semesters, so I would say that’s a pretty good reason.

They seem to pretty much enjoy it. And then, they have a copy of this for their entire career, if they want to go back and put it into the electronic portfolios, now. They can just plop it right into there. So, yeah, it’s been very good, very exciting.

Karen: Yeah, it does sound exciting. Cool. Well, I know there is a lot of chat going on in the chat. Looks like about Rachel and other open pedagogy projects. Are there other questions that any of you want to surface from the chat? Or unmute and ask directly?

Delmar: Amy, what was the name of that technology you’re using again?

Amy: It’s called eLabFTW. There’s a link I put in the chat for that program.

Delmar: Thank you.

Karen: Okay, I think that was an adequate pause, but if not, feel free to interrupt me as I segue into our closing comments. So, on behalf of the Open Education Network, it’s always a pleasure partnering with the Rebus Community and Apurva on Office Hours. And please join me in thanking our three guests and the stories that they shared about creating math and science resources.

We were joined today by Oscar Levin, Amy Balija, and Delmar Larsen. If you have ideas for future Office Hours, please let us know. And Apurva, I’ll hand things over to you for any closing comments.

Apurva: Thank you, Karen and thank you to all three guests for sharing their experiences and sharing a plethora of tools with us. I’m sure there’s a lot of reflecting back in the chat and looking up some of these resources that we’ll be doing. I also wanted to take a moment to thank everybody who joined us at this session today. Thank you for contributing your questions, reflections and thoughts.

And as always, it’s a pleasure to coordinate with the Open Education Network on these sessions. Looking forward to seeing you all hopefully next month. Take care, everyone. Bye bye.

Karen: Bye.

Chat Transcript

11:03:28 From Apurva Ashok : And here’s where you can request future topics or even nominate someone to be a speaker: 

11:11:12 From Arianna Cheveldave (BCcampus) : Looks great, Oscar! Thanks for sharing

11:12:41 From Oscar Levin : My discrete math textbook:

11:12:56 From Oscar Levin : Information about PreTeXt:

11:13:29 From Anita Walz : More information about VIVA’s grant program:

11:13:40 From Apurva Ashok : Thanks, Anita and Oscar!

11:14:00 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : Some states are working toward similar initiatives statewide in terms of funding models. Talk with your librarian! 🙂

11:17:55 From Amy Balija : elabFTW website:

11:25:02 From Steven J. Bell : What was “ADAPT” in libretexts…I haven’t noticed that before

11:25:32 From Lin Brander : Thanks so much – great information!

11:25:45 From Delmar Larsen (LibreTexts) : my quantum book:

11:26:49 From Anita Walz : HHMI Grant at Radford:

11:27:32 From Steven J. Bell : Do any of your (to the speakers) ask about getting a print copy of these texts…or is that just not even possible with these types of texts

11:27:43 From Steven J. Bell : “Any of your students…

11:31:14 From Steven J. Bell : Adaptive learning…thanks for sharing that

11:31:30 From Oscar Levin : I have “published” my book on Amazon through Kindle Direct Publishing, which sells for $14.50. This works well, but then my book doesn’t use many of the interactive features. I’m not sure of a good way to incorporate those in a print book.

11:31:33 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : Kudos for that!!

11:34:41 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : Do your campuses address student hardware, software, & wifi access gaps? I live in a state with limited broadband in many areas so offline reading would be necessary for some.

11:36:02 From Melanie Meyers (BCcampus) : What is available for organic chemistry in terms of open homework systems? The need for a good drawing tool is something I hear is a need as it’s not part of existing open homework systems it’s a barrier to adopting open textbooks for org chem.

11:36:21 From Steven J. Bell : Great feature…thanks for letting us know about the print factor

11:37:43 From Steven J. Bell : Change the contract…fast

11:38:19 From Sarah Lucchesi (she/her) : Good question – we have the same issue here in Maine

11:40:53 From Marilyn Billings : Another device is RACHEL

11:41:20 From Colby Moorberg : RE: being required to offer books through the campus bookstore, my campus has a similar requirement, but I was able to get an exemption to that requirement to make my open lab manual available without a printed copy in the bookstore. The contractor that prints lab manuals for the bookstore was XanEdu, and they were charging an extra $10 for a “copyright fee” for my lab manual, for which I already owned the copyright. I just had to make a big deal about it in order to get the exemption.

11:41:25 From Marilyn Billings : that we use with our World Libraries initiative

11:47:45 From Delmar Larsen (LibreTexts) : RACHEL is a good system. We just wanted more control over the system. The tech we use is either Kolibri or KWIX (which is popular for distributing Wikipedia to Africa/Cuba/N. Korea via sneakerware)

11:49:45 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : I saw a graduate student-created text in Social Work. Definitely a value to quality student-created content. Brave of you to write with students! 🙂

11:52:32 From Rumyana : Anne Marie, do have a link to this Social Work textbook to share?

11:53:16 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : It’s linked from but I can find the specific title.

11:53:34 From Anne Marie Gruber (she/her/hers) : This is the text:

11:53:54 From Rumyana : Thank you!

11:54:57 From Apurva Ashok : Likewise, Karen 🙂

11:55:00 From Cheryl Cuillier : Thank you all!

11:55:10 From Craig R Sandler : Thanks, everyone!

11:55:11 From Melanie Meyers (BCcampus) : Thanks you!

11:55:12 From Jonathan Poritz : Wonderful presentations, very useful, thanks so much!

11:55:45 From Raymond Vasquez : This was wondeful – thank you Amy, Oscar, and Delmar!

11:55:48 From Anita Walz : Thank you!

11:55:51 From Rumyana : thank you!

Thanks to Mei Lin for preparing the audio transcript and video captions!

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