Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 3 – Book Sprints

In my first two write-ups, I framed the pieces around the tools, WordPress and Mediawiki specifically. Hopefully it was clear though that part of the impact of these tools in creating open textbooks is not simply about the products they can produce, but that they can also change the entire process of book authoring and reading by introducing the network and its many affordances.

This time, I want to specifically frame the discussion around a new method of authoring, called “book sprints,” that have arisen both because of technology that enables them but even more so out of new models of collaboration pioneered in hacker and open source communities. A book sprint “brings together a group to produce a book in 3-5 days. There is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to published book. The books produced are high quality content and are made available immediately at the end of the sprint via print-on-demand services and e-book formats.” The idea of a “sprint” originates in the coding world, where a group of developers work in a concerted way over a short, intense period to produce some new code. Originally they were face-to-face events, often held in conjunction with a conference or some other gathering, but in the last few years I have seen them sprout up as online events, both tightly and loosely coordinated. Similarly, while Book sprints began as face to face efforts, they too are starting to migrate into online-only events.

Why a Sprint?

I think one of the reasons I personally love the idea of a Book Sprint is that I learn in a pretty classical “extrovert” fashion – I love to think on my feet and brainstorm out loud with people (ironic for someone who works on his own at home, I know, but then just ask people who meet up with me at conferences!) I also love the fact that, while producing a tangible result, a book, is clearly a main focus, it is not the only value that comes out of the process – seen as having some similarities with “unconferences,” book sprints can be understood as also serving an educational purpose themselves, as well as helping to catalyze a community.

But as I mentioned in my opening post, I think another positive aspect of the Book Sprint is that it embodies the principle of “good enough” – rather than start with a preconceived notion of only a very specific result being of value, it instead works on the same sort of principles of “open space” or unconferences of working with what you’ve got and getting as far as you can in the time you’ve got, knowing that getting something going is more important, in an iterative scenario, than not starting at all because all the ducks haven’t been lined up in a row ahead of time. Sharing, already, not just planning to share. This is especially the case for areas in which a good alternative does not yet exist, or areas in which, by definition, knowledge changes at an incredibly fast pace. And to the extent to which we now understand that digital, open and networked “textbooks” don’t have to be as fixed as in the past, an approach which gives people something to actually iterate on, along with both the rights and ability to do so, seems exactly right.

Ways to do them Online

There are at least 2 main components you’d need to facilitate a book sprint online. The first would be some sort of synchronous conferencing space. Something like elluminate or Big Blue Button for instance. You’d use this for some initial discussion and brainstorming, possibly the session in which you agree on what the general content chunks are and who wants to work on what. An additional synchronous conferencing piece is also useful to facilitate the smaller working groups that split off from the big group – one might consider either the breakout capabilities of the tools I mentioned above, or even tools like Skype or Google Hangout would work.

Alongside that, the working groups need a tool to support collaborative writing. Perhaps Google Docs, perhaps etherpad. Both can output in pretty standard formats. A new entrant that I haven’t tried out but can’t wait to install and kick the tires is – it feels very much like etherpad, but has the added bonus of supporting natively a bunch of useful formats like PDF, ePub and even LaTeX, and the resulting documents look good on their own too.

And I would be absolutely remiss if I did not mention booki. Like both etherpad, and, Booki is free software that is also available as a service, but in this case very specifical developed to facilitate collaborative book authoring. If you think collaborative synchronous book authoring is not possible, just check out the list of books produced via booki (as well, have a look at FLOSSManuals, many of which, FWIK, were produced using booki.)

Now if you think getting people to collaborate on a wiki is hard or confusing, this might not be for you. It does take some patience and tolerance for ambiguity. But it is do-able. One of the first groups I witnessed that inspired me to think this was viable was the P2PU planning group. They have devised a method of collaboration during calls that combines multi-party skype with etherpad for collaborative note taking. I got to experience this in the lead up calls to Mozilla’s Drumbeat conference in 2010, which involved some of the same folks, and it was great to see it in action. It’s definitely not just technology that makes this work; good facilitators, pre-existing group relationships and history all play a part in making this kind of collaboration work. But it is not only viable, it constantly amazes what a smart group of willing collaborators can produce in very little time for very little money.

Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 3 – Book Sprints

3 thoughts on “Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 3 – Book Sprints

  1. This series has been great Scott, and I appreciate the focus here on the process. I’d like to see what the book sprint experience is like.

    It’s probakly farther out of range here, but I also was intrigued by the NaNoWriMo approach where you more or less shared individually your writing progress, but there were systems in place to help you meet other writers,

    The Book of mPub project was notable IMHO because they used the same tools in their process as their publication, eating their own writers food

    I see Google Hangouts as being very useful as well for the ability to converse and work on documents together or screenshare.


  2. The connections with the Book of mPub project are myriad – as you may know, local publishing guru John Maxwell taught the course. He has long been a personal source of inspiration in the quest for simple XML to multi-format solutions. I had coffee with him a couple of weeks back where he kindly laid a copy of the Book of MPub on me. As I understand it, it was written using wordpress and then the XML transformed via XSLT into something that Adobe InDesign could work with. It was then professionally massaged to get the fantastic looking product they produced. So not “one click” but definitely a big step forward. And John is a colleague of Hugh who built Pressbooks and it seems like they have talked this through a hole lot. I agree, that course was exemplary both from the perspective of walking the talk but also just as an example of a not so massive open online course.


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