32 Improvements and Maintenance Overview

This part of The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) will take you through the ‘afterlife’ of your book, and its journey beyond use in classrooms. The release and adoption of your open textbook are big milestones worth celebrating, but they also mark the beginning of a new set of steps. As a living document, your book will continue to change and evolve, and so will your role as creator. Your efforts now shift to maintenance, updates, corrections, and the planning and coordination of future versions.

In this section of the Guide, we cover things like following up on errata reports, updating formats, more substantive improvements and additions, and more.

As in other sections, these suggestions are based on our experience with open textbook projects to date. If you have questions about this overview, or suggestions for what else we should include, please share them in the Rebus Community project home. This document is an evolving draft, and continually incorporates community feedback. We welcome your thoughts and contributions, including ways to improve the Guide overall.

Why care about your textbook beyond release?

Once your OER is released, it’s understandable that you would want to savour the moment, to enjoy the book’s existence in the world and to celebrate having completed a huge piece of work! Nonetheless, while the bulk of of your efforts is complete, it’s important to remember that maintaining the book is important — to ensure its ongoing relevance and continued adoption.

Books, regardless of whether they are web-based or printed, need some amount of editorial attention to remain valuable resources. This maintenance includes gathering feedback from adopters and readers, which is is invaluable for strengthening the text. It’s also necessary, because you will never be able to catch every single typo in the book prior to release, and because you will need to routinely check for broken links, among other changes that are out of your control.

A book that is not improved, updated, and maintained can be perceived as being ‘too old’ and ‘out-of-date’ very quickly and therefore not seriously considered as an option by educators seeking course materials. In a way, a book’s usefulness can depend on the amount of attention that it receives – as people see news of updates, changes, or improvements to the book, they will be more likely to peruse the book and use it in their course!

What Maintenance Entails

Maintaining an open textbook doesn’t need to be a complicated matter. As we see it, maintenance includes ongoing changes that are more about function than content, made at any point, during the academic year. This entails keeping tabs on the book with an eye to grammatical errors, typos, or broken links. You may also choose to track and respond to any error reports that readers and adopters of the book have submitted (including thanking them for their keen eyes, and perhaps asking if they want to get involved with other improvements!)

If your resource is hosted on the web, part of the maintenance process should involve ensuring that it is still accessible in its web format along with other offline and editable formats. And to ensure maximum distribution, find out if any new OER repositories have been created since the book’s initial release, and then make sure you submit it for inclusion there.

Further down, we get into more detail about the timing, order, and significance of different type of maintenance revisions.

Improvements and Additions

While “maintenance” refers to smaller, ongoing changes to an open textbook, we call more significant changes to content “improvements and additions.” These are made at particular moments following the book’s release, unlike the more frequent and unscheduled corrections that are part of maintenance. These changes can be split into three categories:

  • qualitative improvements to existing content
  • quantitative additions to existing content
  • disciplinary or thematic updates

Following adoption and classroom use of the book, you are bound to receive different forms of constructive feedback regarding the content. For instance, you may have been told that a particular unit has proven to be very difficult for students to understand, or that specific elements like case studies, exercises, or references are not as clear as they should be.

These constitute opportunities for improving those parts of the resource, which should be done during this phase in the book’s life-cycle. Improvements can also be implemented based on feedback from reviewers—those issues that were not addressed during the initial creation of the book. It’s also critical in this phase to revisit and resolve outstanding accessibility issues, as well as new ones that have been identified as the book has been used.

During this stage, you can also make additions to the content. These may include elements that were initially planned for inclusion but didn’t make it into the first release, suggestions from reviewers, proposals from adopters, and ideas you and your team came up with post-release. Additions can also come in the form of ancillary materials, like slide decks, question banks, exercises, and other supplementary content. We go into more detail about ancillary materials in later sections of the Guide, so keep reading!

The last category of revisions are those that become relevant due to changes within the textbook’s discipline or subject area, or in response to real-world changes that provide new or improved examples of theoretical concepts. It is particularly important to split out this category from improvements and additions, as it highlights how OER can be responsive to wider changes theory, discourse, and practice. For this part of the process, pay attention to these larger themes, including examples, case studies, language and terminology, methodologies that are cited, resource lists, and literature reviews.

All of these changes should be included in the book’s Version History, which serves as a record of the various changes, edits, additions, and updates that are made over time. Take a look at our version history template and adapt it as needed for your book.

Timing and Process

Depending on the extent of improvements, additions, and updates to be made, they will need to be carried out at different times after release. A major concern, therefore, is the impact that making changes during the school year will have on students and teachers who are using the book in their courses. This includes the changes made to different formats of the book too, as students will be accessing the book in a variety of ways (on the web, in other digital formats like EPUB, PDF, MOBI, and as printed copies).

The upshot is that maintenance changes (correcting typos, broken links, etc.) are the only type of revisions we advise making during the school year, and these should only be made to the web-based version of the resource. Changes to the print version and other formats will need to wait for a pause in the academic year or until year-end, depending on how the in-school time is organized in your region. Each maintenance change does not need to be marked as a new edition of the book, nor does it necessarily require comprehensive tracking in the Version History. We do recommend, however, that error reports and corrections be listed publicly, so readers can see what those changes are and note them in their teaching and learning contexts, as well as avoid submitting duplicate error reports. Take a look at some example errata lists from OpenStax, along with examples of how to share these lists in printed PDF formats, and some inspirations for the errata form itself.

For other improvements and updates, we suggest that you first parse and process the extent of the changes needed, and then plan out a timeline to do so. Some changes may be easier or harder to implement, or require less or more participation from the team. As you’re deciding on your tasks and timeline, also think through who will make these changes and assign the right people to them. The scale of changes, from classroom feedback to significant additions planned by the team, will determine whether a new edition or a new version of the book will need to be released (more on this below). The important thing is to be responsive to adopters, readers, and other scholars, and clearly surface the changes that you are making to the text in the version history.

When significant changes have been made and there is a new version or edition of your resource, inform all of its known adopters before replacing the old format of the book. And if possible, inform everyone of the specific updates, additions, corrections that have been made— either by pointing to the Version History, or to a list of improvements (if it is a new edition). See an example of this in Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Editions and Versions

The differences between a new version of a textbook and a new edition of a textbook bear clarification. As we think of it, a new version contains only minor changes – maintenance and smaller-scale improvements to the existing content. A new edition of the book incorporates major changes to content, such as additions and updates to the original release.

New versions of a book are usually indicated by point increments (e.g., 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, …), while new editions are indicated by whole number increases (e.g., 1st edition, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, …) The release of a new edition is a time to rally more attention within and beyond your community, and perhaps some promotional efforts as well. If this is the case, do so strategically, and only if the revisions merit it. If there have only been subtle changes and updates, it may not warrant extensive promotion.

Releases of new editions can sometimes be disruptive, especially if they happen frequently (every year, for instance), as students might be working with older physical copies of the book that are more easily available and/or affordable. While one of the many advantages of publishing openly is the flexibility and ease of making changes, it is still important to be considerate towards ongoing users of the book, bearing in mind the impact that changes will have on them.

If you are working on a new edition of your book, be public about it, and communicate in advance with your team and adopters about the expected changes and updates. Doing so lets them know what is coming, and may even motivate some people to help you make these improvements. Once the changes have been completed, reach out and update everyone, pointing to the new edition and Version History that clearly outlines updates you have made.

Spinoffs and side projects

So far, we’ve only addressed updates and improvements to the core textbook, but there are other ways in which you may like to expand on your book. Ancillary materials like slide decks, question banks, instructor manuals, and student workbooks can supplement your resource and make it a more appealing package for adopters. You can begin work on these projects following the book’s release, or if you have the resources to do so, concurrent to the book’s production!

With the open license on your book, the different types of spinoffs are endless. For instance, translations, spelling conversions (eg.: American to British spelling), or cultural adjustments can make it accessible for use in more regions. Other adaptations, small or large, can make the text work better in different pedagogical contexts, or incorporate regionally specific content that makes it relevant to a different set of users, thus expanding the pool of readers around your book.

While adaptations mostly maintain consistency of the content, other variants like remixing can involve blending content from the book with other openly licensed content. For example, Blueprint for Success in College and Career remixes sections from four other OER: Foundations of Academic Success, A Different Road to College: A Guide for Transitioning Non-traditional Students, How to Learn Like a Pro!, and College Success.

Other ways to build on your book is to think of new formats and media through which to share content. You could create an audiobook version of the text, a series of short videos summarizing each unit, or a poster series that creates visualizations of the content. The possibilities are endless!

Who makes these changes?

As we’ve seen so far, there’s a lot that you can do to maintain and improve on your already carefully crafted open textbook! The main thing to keep in mind that all these improvements do not need to be made by you alone. In fact, it probably won’t and can’t all be done by you – and that’s a good thing. Part of what makes creating open textbooks important is the community building that goes hand in hand. This doesn’t stop with the book’s release, but continues during improvements and maintenance. Keep gathering people around the book during this phase, from adopters to adapters, so that both the book and the community can grow with time!

The first source of help for maintenance and improvements is the team and collaborators who were involved in creating the resource. Reach out to them as needs arise, and you may be surprised at their response! You can also reach out to the people who are using the book – adopters may well be very motivated to help make changes, as they are the ones who directly benefit from improvements to the book.

Simply put, any individual or organization invested in the value of the resource has an incentive to contribute to maintaining it and keeping it up-to-date in the long term. Depending on the type of project or work that is being done to improve or add to the book, you may even find funders willing to invest financially, or others who can secure budgets through institutional, local, or state grants.

For this to happen, it is vital that you have clear communications pathways set up from your book and its ancillaries. That way, anyone who is interested in contributing in some way knows how to contact you or another team member. And if you find that you need to step away from the project at some point, make sure you’ve identified and involved someone else to take over or manage things in the interim. Look to your leadership team for this, because there will likely be someone who is eager and willing to take on the mantle.

And lastly, do what you can to be public about the status of the book, of other projects, and of changes, even if it’s in the form of a short notice in the book or in your team’s public discussion space. Leave the possibilities for the book open – and watch eagerly how they unfurl!

Need further assistance?

We hope these suggestions will help you maintain your textbook and follow its life and journey around the world. We’ll continue to add to the Guide as we work with more projects, and we welcome your ideas on what else we might add, as well as 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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