8 Engagement Guide

This guide is meant to help you with contributor engagement, so that the team around your open textbook project remains active and committed to seeing the book all the way through to publication. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) and you are welcome to print this document, make a copy for yourself, or share with others.

Please read through sections below, and consider the suggestions as you are planning your project’s timeline and estimating workloads, or to help move along a project that is lagging or stalled. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us on the Rebus Community project home. This document is based on our experience managing open textbook projects, and we welcome your feedback and additional suggestions.

Why does engagement matter?

In the open textbook projects that Rebus has supported, engagement has been a key factor determining the project’s advancement or success. Most projects saw some initial interest, buzz, and activity during the first few weeks. However, we noticed that this can die down fairly quickly, and in some cases, where a project has stretched out for too long, we’ve lost a few contributors along the way. It falls on the project leads to make a conscious effort to keep participants engaged.

Our most successful projects have had an active community of participants – authors, editors, proofreaders, copy editors, reviewers, formatters, leads, other volunteers – who conversed with each other often with updates about their tasks or the project more generally.

These projects found a way to ensure participants knew the work they were doing was valuable and part of a larger effort. They also enabled contributors to connect with a larger community of practice in their subject. We found that public-facing projects with a lot of activity acted as social proof for current and potential collaborators: encouraging new people to get involved with the project, and fuelling those already on board to complete the tasks that they had signed up to do.

Ultimately, while engagement helped drive projects forward, for some participants, it was the connections they made with others, and the conversations/discussions they had that they valued. Contact between authors, between editors and authors, between authors and formatters, and similar, created a sense of community, even mentorship, among participants. The project leads for the Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship open textbook formed a community of practice and held biweekly calls with those adopting or teaching with the book.

“Many thanks…for the gift to join you in such a fascinating intellectual and collaborative journey for making the Open Textbook on Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship a dynamic learning, writing, and mentoring experiment. Along with the open textbook and the upcoming instructors’ manual, I think you are also helping to create a very dynamic network and community of practice.”

—Betty Tsakarestou, author and assistant professor at Panteion University

Suggestions for engagement

Below are some ways in which you can try to create an engaged community around your project. This list will continue to grow as we learn from other projects and we welcome suggestions if you’ve had success managing similar volunteer projects.

Introduce your team to one another

This sounds very straightforward, but make sure to introduce members of the team to one another. It’s not uncommon to be juggling several lines of communication between yourself as the team lead and many participants, but creating connections across the project is just as important for keeping people engaged. If you’re located in the same city, you could try to arrange an in-person meet. However, most projects tend to involve participants from all around the world – so a simple email or video call to introduce the team to one another will suffice!

If you’re not the project lead, but an editor of a particular part or section of the book, you could send a similar email to the authors in your part. The email should welcome individuals to the team, and could even include links to shared resources such as the project’s timeline.

Acknowledge different working and communication styles, and involve your team in project planning

If you’re the project lead, it’s especially important to keep in mind that members of your team may not have the same working or communication style. These kinds of things vary across people and cultures, and if you have a global team, you can’t expect everyone to switch to your default. Instead, you should discuss preferences and expectations at the start of the project, and invite members to help plan the project timeline and tasks with you. This may help to avoid conflict or disengagement down the line, and help you better gauge when an issue might be arising.

You should also discuss communication preferences with team members early on – is email okay, or are calls better? What kind of response time is expected? Respect these preferences, and as project lead, ask your team to do the same. Sharing this information up front, to whatever extent possible, will help your team understand one another, leading towards smoother interactions and fewer frustrations.

Share examples – model chapters/outlines/abstracts

Make sure everyone has model chapters/outlines/abstracts or whatever else they’re being asked to submit. This can ease the cognitive load of getting started, and help ensure consistency in what’s submitted. Where possible, it’s also good to select this model content from what has already been submitted or created by a project lead and share it with the others – this also adds the little nudge that others are further ahead, which can help get people moving!

Encourage contributors to post questions/share drafts

Wherever possible, we ask contributors to share their drafts or ask any questions that they have on a public-facing channel, such as the Rebus Community forum or in Google docs shared with other authors. This helps other members of the team keep track of various tasks, reduces the work of having to answer the same questions many times over, gives people examples to work from, and acts as a subtle reminder to those who may be behind on their deadlines.

Send individual emails/ conduct one-on-one calls

If general reminder emails aren’t getting much of a response, try individual emails or one-on-one calls with the team leads. If a particular contributor has dropped off the radar, or you’re not sure they’re seeing the emails you’re sending to the whole team, check in with them personally to see how they’re getting on. A short note can do the trick, and it may just be that they’re having a busy couple of weeks, but the response rate is generally higher with this approach!

Put together an FAQ, and let others add to it

If you find the same questions or concerns are coming up from multiple people, consider putting together an FAQ to share with other contributors. You can give contributors editing privileges, and encourage them to add to the list, so the burden of updating the list doesn’t fall solely on you. Also consider whether any of these questions could be addressed in your author/editor/contributor guide or project summary and add to them as needed.

Hold regular calls with your team

You may also want to hold a call with your contributors, or an office hours-style drop in session. Encouraging attendance at these can also help develop the community feeling, which helps keep people invested and responsible to each other to fulfill their commitments. These calls may be structured around each chapter, connecting authors and instructors giving feedback for example, or each phase of the project (“Two weeks until submission deadline! Help!”) or be an open space for feedback and questions as needed.

Dissuade the drop-outs: instead, encourage participation in less time-consuming tasks…

If at any point it looks like someone might be backing out, suggest that they could instead take on a different role, perhaps acting as a reviewer instead of an author, or help to promote the book down the line. And always ask if they want to stay up to date as things progress! You can contact them again when you’re looking for other kinds of contributions or releasing the book. Sharing updates or notifications when the book is available is a good way to acknowledge their interest in the project, even if they haven’t been able to commit to it entirely.

… but remember that not everyone will stay involved, and that’s okay!

Contributors always have the option to say no and withdraw if they’re not able to participate in a project. If they’re interested enough to have signed up in the first place, it’s worth trying to keep them in the loop, but they might not always want that. It can be disappointing, but if someone does have to bow out completely, remember that we all have competing priorities, and you never know what may be happening on their end. Be respectful of that, and wish them well. There will be plenty more people out there with the time to give to your project to whom you can shift your focus.

Need further assistance?

We hope these suggestions will help you form a robust, committed community around your project. We’ll continue to add to this guide as we work with more projects, and we’d welcome your ideas on what else we could add, or your feedback on how these approaches have worked (or not!) for you.

If you have questions or anything to add, please let us know in the Rebus Community project home.


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) Copyright © 2019 by Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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