Part I – Pilot Project

Open e-Literature

Contextural Origins

In the exploration of what is open e-literature (e.g. e-textbook), it may be helpful to examine its origin.

A humorous sketch on what and how to use a book that illustrates the human interaction with changing information technologies.

Medieval Textbook Introduction
“Øystein og jeg”, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) 2001 (NRK, 2007)


In the Financial Post newspaper article Toppling ‘Big Textbook’ , Claire Brownel reported that the financial burdens of textbooks on students to be “more than $1,000 a year” (Brownell, 2015, p.FP6) [1]. Brownell discussed the online rental services and sellers, as disrupting print textbook publishers. Brownell (2015, p.FP6) noted that “in 2008, print textbooks accounted for 81 per cent of McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings’ business.” I responded via email to Brownells’ article by inquiring if she would consider open e-textbook initiatives and free textbook downloads in Canada “a digital disrupter to publishers grip on high prices”?

… A reply has not been forthcoming.

Follow-up commentary:

The Canadian government subsidizes commercial publishers (Cyberservices, 2016), but are individual open e-textbook publishers being equally subsidized? Compounding the Canadian government’s commercial support, is an ISO standard for e-textbooks that is favourable to commercial interests (ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 36 Information technology for learning, education and training, 2016). Ironically, students and taxpayers could be paying twice for the same product, as exemplified by Merkley (2016). It is noteworthy that there is currently no open standard for open e-textbooks.

What is a textbook?

According to Wikipedia (“Textbook,” 2016), Merriam-Webster (“Definition of TEXTBOOK,” n.d.), and other online sites, a textbook is described as an educational resource while deferring to define its physical characteristics. The form of the textbook is worth exploring as it is imbued in digital technologies. Perhaps the paper textbook was an improvement over the clay tablet, as paper could be bent without breaking, easier to duplicate, with conveniently acquired fibers, and was a more durable portable knowledge resource.

The fiber based scroll may have been a welcome improvement over clay, but would have been a different reading experience managing the technology compared to flipping a flat stack of paper sheets. Hence this physical bound stack of paper sheets, has permeated into digital pages, word-processing, portable formats, and returned as hard copy output.

Fiber-based Textbook Characteristics

  • mass varies depending on thickness and size of paper, quantity of pages, and binding
  • thin sheets of paper bound by a thicker front and back cover
  • paper sheets printed by machine for mass production
  • assorted sizes (such as letter, legal, A4, A5, etc.)
  • organized content
  • multimedia content capable


  • no electricity required
  • portable
  • tangible (reading and annotation)
  • globally entrenched in production and consumption
  • better than a clay tablet


  • requires light for reading (caveat Braille or hole encoded; not including wax or vinyl audio)
  • damaged by fire, water, age, and separation (i.e., tearing or shredding)
  • size and weight
  • resource intensive production (paper production, printing, and binding)
  • resource intensive deployment (shipping and receiving)
  • revision intensive (new editions are time and resource consuming)
  • requires some dexterity to manipulate

What is e-literature?

E-literature has often been used as an digital form of the hard copy textbook.  In example, many word processing and desktop publishing applications export to a portable document format (PDF), that is a fixed text layout replicating a printed page.  Reflowable content formats (i.e., EPUB), are a paradigm shift in accessing multimedia information, as the idea of a “page” is transformed into a screen space that may display endless content in the same space or break the space into separate screens; with a scrolling two-dimensional display of content resembling an actual fiber-based scroll.


  • hypermedia (“Hypermedia,” 2016)
  • synchronous and asynchronous production and deployment
  • available instantly world-wide 24-7
  • weightless irrespective of quantity of bits and bytes
  • searchable
  • non-destructive shareable annotation
  • online author collaboration
  • social network compatible
  • interactive (may include games, simulations, etc.)
  • multimedia (audio, video)
  • multi-layered content
  • portable
  • accessible on all platforms and computing devices (i.e., smartphones)
  • synchronous versioning (non-destructive editing and annotation for authors)
  • secure accounting
  • copied without cost
  • fluid text can be formatted to end user taste with respect to fonts and accessibility


  • hardware and software dependencies (leading to potential failures)
  • easier copyright abuse
  • electricity required
  • easily destroyed (includes encrypted / DRM sources that are non-addressable without special efforts) (“FairPlay,” 2016)
  • barrier to people who do not have access to computing devices

The Open in “Open Source”

In general open source may be interpreted as freedom to use in any way you wish (“Open-source software,” 2016).  However, there are more variations in licenses than ice cream flavours, such as Creative Commons collection (“About The Licenses – Creative Commons,” n.d.) and General Public License (“GNU General Public License,” 2016). The keyword is open, and this one word means the difference between access for all, and access to those who can afford it. According to the Dictionary (“Open,” 2014), open is defined as freely accessible without restrictions. Any open e-textbook that restricts the enduser in any way from acquiring the content would not be considered open. Hence, sites that require login access or bury content behind paywalls or commercial content could be considered examples of closed e-textbooks. The source of the content may be free to use and modify, but access to the e-textbook is not open.


  • free
  • content archival proof (not destroyed by Digital Rights Managment [2])
  • opportunity for localization
  • instant world access
  • expanding


  • no direct revenue
  • requires resources to create and distribute
  • requires human support
  • dependent on continued computing support (i.e., hardware and software)


Combine open source ideas with e-literature via the Internet, and now more people than ever before in the history of humanity can instantly access content directly from their smartphones. In 2012 the number of number of smartphones in use reached 1.038 billion units (Business Wire Inc., 2012).

Dr. Tony Bates on Open Textbooks

Dr. Bates offers an insightful streaming audio discussion on producing an open source textbook.

ETUG 2015 - Tony Bates - Conference presentation by EdMedia @ SFU
ETUG 2015 – Tony Bates – Conference presentation by EdMedia (ETUG 2015 – Tony Bates – Conference presentation, 2015-06-15)

Open Education Resources

Open e-textbooks can be considered open educational resources (OER), as per the definition from the Hewlett Foundation (“Open Educational Resources – Hewlett Foundation,” n.d.):

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

Open Knowledge

The article “You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous” (Merkley, 2016) is a commentary on the sources of knowledge and economics:


About The Licenses – Creative Commons. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2016, from

Brownell, C. (2015, September 5). Toppling “Big Textbook” : Digital disrupters are shaking publishers’ grip on high price. Financial Post, pp. FP1, FP6.

Business Wire Inc. (2012, October 17). Strategy Analytics: Worldwide Smartphone Population Tops 1 Billion in Q3 2012. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from

Cyberservices, G. of C. C. H. (2016, April 22). Canada Book Fund – Overview. Retrieved February 10, 2017, from

Definition of TEXTBOOK. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2016, from

ETUG 2015 – Tony Bates – Conference presentation. (2015, June 15.). Retrieved from

FairPlay. (2016, March 11). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

GNU General Public License. (2016, March 23). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Hypermedia. (2016, April 4). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 36 Information technology for learning, education and training. (2016, August). ISO/IEC TR 18120:2016 – Information technology — Learning, education, and training — Requirements for e-textbooks in education [Library]. Retrieved March 6, 2017, from

Merkley, R. (2016, April 18). You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from

NRK. (2007). Medieval helpdesk with English subtitles. Retrieved from

Open. (2014). Dictionary. Apple Inc.

Open Educational Resources – Hewlett Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2016, from

Open-source software. (2016, April 3). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Textbook. (2016, April 4). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

  1. also retrieved 2015-12-18 from
  2. Favourite DRM media experience was a red video DVD-ROM that would disintegrate after 48 hours of light exposure.


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MEM by S.Swettenham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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