OER Booksprint Reflections

Earlier this week Amber Thomas, Phil Barker, Martin Hawksey and I had the interesting and rewarding experience of participating in an OER booksprint. A booksprint is essentially an accelerated facilitated writing retreat, and in this case our facilitator was the endlessly patient and encouraging Adam Hyde of booksprints.net and Sourcefabric’s Booktype team. Adam has previously facilitated booksprints for a diverse range of initiatives including FLOSS Manuals and Google Summer of Code.

The aim of a booksprint is to produce a book from scratch in five intensive days. That may sound challenging enough, however we only had two and a half days to produce our book and, just to add to the challenge, the Scottish Legal system conspired against us to haul Martin off to do his civic duty by citing him for jury service. Luckily Martin didn’t get selected for the jury, which is just as well, as we wouldn’t have been able to complete our book without him.

The task we set for our sprint was to draw together some of the significant technical outputs of the three JISC / HEA Open Educational Resources Programmes, reflect on issues that arose and identify future directions. I think its fair to say that we all approached the task with some trepidation and perhaps even a little scepticism. Could we really write a book in two and a half days? Right from the outset Adam was realistic about what we could reasonably achieve. Given our small team and the shorter then normal timescale, he suggested that a 15,000 work booklet would be an achievable goal. We rather surprised ourselves by exceeding these expectations with a final count of 21,000 words.

We used a combination of high and lo tech to facilitate the writing process, i.e. collaborative authoring software and post-it notes :}

We began with a brain storming session to identify the audience for the book, scope the content, construct the table of contents and discuss individual chapters. Although separate authors were allocated to each individual chapter, the content of each chapter was scoped by the whole group. Phil proved to be particularly adept at managing this process. As Adam explained on his blog:

To structure these (chapters) we are working on a nice big wooden table in the lounge and writing ideas onto post-it notes. Everyone can participate with contributions on what should be in the chapter, and the person taking responsibility for starting the chapter writes these ideas down on post-it notes and orders them according to the structure we created yesterday.

It’s a great process and very good for getting the wide range of knowledge available on a subject into the chapter, and its easy to see how this content can fit together as a readable structure.

Structuring chapters
In order to structure and manage the collaborative writing process we used Booktype’s booki collaborative authoring software which stood up to the task very well.


Booki also includes some interesting analytics tools that allow users to visualise the writing process.

Booki analytics

Once a chapter was completed it was passed on to another member of the group for editing, with the aim that by the end of the sprint each chapter would have been reviewed and edited twice. As we had written considerably more than we originally envisaged we were slightly pushed for time when it came to the editing stage. So we have a considerably longer book than we expected but it still needs a little polishing.

On reflection I think it’s fair to say that we all found the book sprint to be a challenging, but very positive and productive experience. Phil commented that he found it interesting to “flip” our normal process of collaborating. As we all work remotely and tend to only come together and meet face to face when we are scoping and planning a piece of work. We then go back to our respective institutions to get on with our tasks, using tools such as Skype, Google docs, email and twitter to facilitate remote collaboration. This time however we did all the planning and orchestration remotely, and used the face time to do the collaborative work. It was certainly a different, and very productive, way for us to work. In fact Phil went so far as to comment that this was the closest he had ever come to an enjoyable writing experience! Adam also kept a blog of progress and reflections, which you can read here .

The next stage of the process is to tie up some loose ends and then invite other members of the OER community to comment on the text. Hopefully these commentaries will be incorporated into the books as concluding reflections. In the meantime the draft of our book is openly available here, so feel free to read and comment.

NPG adopts Creative Commons licence

Last month the National Portrait Gallery changed their image licencing policy to allow free downloads for non-commercial and academic purposes.

Writing in Museums Journal today Rebecca Atkinson explained that:

The change means that more than 53,000 low-resolution images are now available free of charge to non-commercial users through a standard Creative Commons licence.

Atkinson quotes Tom Morgan, head of rights and reproductions at the NPG saying”

“Obviously this is quite complex – on one hand, if people are making money from a museum’s content then it’s right the museum should share that profit but we also want to support academic and education activity. So we took the opportunity to look at the way in which we could deliver this service and automate it.”

A new automated interface on all the NPG’s collection item pages now leads users to a “Use this image page” with links to request three different licences. Each license is accompanied by clear and concise information on how the image can be used:

Professional licence: can be used in books, films, TV, merchandise, commercial and promotional activities, display and exhibition.

Academic licence: can be used in your research paper, classroom or scholarly publication.

Creative Commons licence: can be used in non-commercial, amateur projects (e.g. blogs, local societies and family history).

In order to apply for a Professional or Academic licence users must register to use the NPG’s lightbox and then apply for the appropriate license. For print works, the academic license covers images for non-commercial publications with a print run of less than 4000, images must also be used inside the publication.

To access the lower resolution Creative Common’s licensed image, users are not required to register, but they must submit a valid e-mail address before they can download the image in the form of zip file. The images themselves do not appear to carry any embedded license information or watermarks, but they are accompanied by the following text file

Please find, attached, a copy of the image, which I am happy to supply to you with permission to use solely according to your licence, detailed at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

It is essential that you ensure images are captioned and credited as they are on the Gallery’s own website (search/find each item by NPG number at http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/advanced-search.php).

This has been supplied to you free of charge. I would be grateful if you would please consider making a donation at http://www.npg.org.uk/support/donation/general-donation.php in support of our work and the service we provide.

Now I should probably point out that I have a personal interest in this change of policy as I recently contacted the NPG to request permission to use some of their images in an academic publication. I was delighted when they pointed me to the new automated licence interface and confirmed that the images in question could be used free of charge. What really struck me at the time though was what a valuable resource this could prove to be for open education, as the NPG has effectively released 53,000 free and clearly licensed potential open educational resources into the public domain. The CC license chosen by the gallery may be on the restrictive side, but it certainly demonstrates a growing and very welcome commitment to openness from the cultural heritage sector that could be of direct benefit to education.