By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics
Having just completed an eCampusOntario-funded open eTextbook project with my collaborator, Mathieu Lemire, and the rest of the team members with expertise in editing, accessibility, instructional design, open learning, library services and finances, I would like to share some of my experiences from the project in a series of blog articles.
Last spring, before I drafted the proposal for the project, I went on a hunt for a suitable authoring platform. Because of accessibility as well as print-on-demand requirements, the platform had to be able to produce both HTML5 and PDF outputs at the minimum.
Four candidates ended up on my short list: Gitbook, Pressbooks, MathBook XML, and bookdown (popular authoring tools such as Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, Pages, or LaTex did not make the cut for reasons that, I hope, will become apparent by the end of this article). Many STEM eBooks have been written and published using these platforms and so any of the four would have been a good choice. However, I ended up choosing bookdown for what I believe are good reasons.
The speed at which our book needed to be written played a major role in my decision. We had from the end of September last year until the end of March this year to complete the book (which ended up being well over 400 pages).
During this six-month period, Mathieu and I could mostly only work on the eBook during evenings and weekends due to our regular work commitments. As a result, we needed to be able to author close to the speed of thought; we did not have the luxury for fiddling with graphical equation editors or wading through XML or HTML tags.
Being able to author in the RMarkdown format when using bookdown was as close to the ideal as we had hoped. Bookdown also handled cross-referencing equations, theorems, exercises and examples rather painlessly. It could output to HTML, PDF and EPUB. But most important of all, bookdown was the most hackable and the most forgiving. This turned out to be an important feature.
As a relatively new software, bookdown had a number of bugs that would seriously affect the project. Fortunately, since bookdown is open source, I was able to submit patches to fix some of them and report those that I did not manage to fix.
In the end, it was a highly useable platform that delivered good results. If I had picked a platform over which I had little control, any serious issue would have been difficult, or even impossible, to overcome during the short time frame.
However, all the challenges presented by the authoring platform and the math content itself paled in comparison to the issue of accessibility. I found out that accessibility in math, depending on who you talk to, ranges from being nearly-solved to practically impossible given current technology. I will discuss some of my findings in future articles.