How It Could Work

I'm just going to offer a short post today as I develop some aspects of gRSShopper. In particular, I now have the gRSShopper MOOC environment up and running in a Docker environment - all the instructions are here if you want a copy for yourself, plus there's a video showing how to do it. But that's not what this post is about.

Last week I read an email on a discussion list highlighting the new Matrix Algebra with Computational Applications e-book offered by Michigan State University. It's a lovely book, and what stood out about it was the way it used PressBooks for distribution as an open e-book, and how it embedded Jupyter Notebook in with the text. I spent some time looking at the source, as I do, and I would have sworn I saw an Atom feed in there somewhere (I haven't been able to find it again, but I'm sure I saw it).

Anyhow, it tweaked in me the thought that a book could be thought of as a feed, because, after all, a feed is just a list of (related) articles, and so is a book. So this would be a great way to make the book available to someone studying in a cMOOC using gRSShopper. Such a student would have their own RSS reader, and could receive the feed information as part of the process of enrolling for the course.

As I said, I couldn't find the Atom feed, but I did find that the books published using Pressbooks by the Michigan State University open library each contain their own RSS feeds; the items in the feed correspond to book chapters. Most of the Matrix Algebra book, unfortunately, is not in PressBooks, it's published on GitHub (it's here where I thought I saw the Atom feed, but if it ever existed, it's gone now).

What I wanted to do is showcase using gRSShopper to aggregate book chapters that would, when read inside gRSShopper, allow readers to open Jupyter Notebooks in Binder. This of course is perfectly possible (and probably has been done by Tony Hirst in one form or another). 

But the idea still had merit, so I thought I would simply add a PressBook book to a gRSShopper PLE or MOOC. I ended up using the el30 MOOC (it's what I had open at the time and I was just messing around) and didn't see anything directly relevant at Michigan State but a little searching took me to Designing the Digital World, part of the PressBoooks collection at UCI Galway. I put the RSS feed into the feed reader and unsurprisingly had the book's contents available for reading:

Now it wasn't seamless. I had to study the source to find the RSS feed, something an average reader wouldn't do. The contents weren't classified in any way. More importantly, they did not appear in the right order in the reader. Also, the RSS feed items were stubs; you had to click a link and read the book at its original PressBooks location, which would not be ideal for offline reading. Still, it was pretty elegant.

And what's neat is that all of these book chapters merge together in the same environment. So if I'm looking for something, I can search my own collection and see where it appears in Chapter 3 of one book, Chapter 5 of some other book, and Chapter 8 of some other book. All in one reading environment, all right beside each other.


Now yesterday I was involved in an online discussion about Sharing and collaborating our way out of the storm with Alastair Creelman and the University of Edinburgh's Melissa Highton. I mention her institution because among the highlights of her talk and discussion was a reference to their OpenEd initiative featuring a large collection of Open Educational Resources. And you can probably see where this is going.

Part of the problem with OERs, said Creelman, is that their use is not really organized or structured in any way. I see the objection, but I didn't like the way he framed it from with an institutional and teaching perspective. I mean, ideally, OERs are designed to be used by - nay, even created by - students. For this to work they would this need to be directly available within a student's learning environment, not lingering in some repository waiting for an instructor to discover and adapt them.

So on a hunch I decided to look at the source code for the Edinburgh repository, and perhaps surprisingly, I found an RSS feed (maybe they're using WordPress to organize their resources). So I browsed through to a category relevant to the el30 course, subscribed to the RSS feed, and the resources just flooded into the reader. Like so:

Again, the item is just a stub, so you need to click through to the original resource. And again, the resources are presented in no particular order. But I'm not too worried about this; I could just present a set of OERs or book chapters in the form of a serialized MOOC (this is a topic for another day).

But imagine these institutions actually provided the full resources. Imagine that we were able to find a large number of courses and books, so that institutions and individuals could use them to create courses and provide these learning resources on the fly. And imagine that each student had his or her own collection of these resources, perhaps annotated or linked to categories or projects, from all of their courses, no matter where they too the course from.

This is what it could be. If institutions would provide lists of their books or OER collections in OPML files, and make them available to - well, me to start, but to the community more generally - we could in very short order have an open and distributed learning resource network. I looked, for example at Ton Zijlstra's Federated Bookshelf Proof of Concept. Perhaps what we want - in part is Tom Critchlow's Web of Books

We could have this - if this is what we want - in very short order. Books and OER distributed by RSS. OPML lists creating collections for specific purposes - courses, discussion lists, whatever. RSS readers like gRSShopper using these OPML files to aggregate the contents and present them inside the student's own integrated learning environment. And then these - chapters, resources, comments, etc. - shared through the network among people taking the same course, working in the same community, or associated in any other way.

Why don't we have this? It's hard not to be cynical about the intentions of academic institutions and publishers. But this isn't the place for that just now. This is to point to the possibility - the fact that if we want this we could have this now. This is how it would work. This is what it would look like.

And then we could tackle the other questions of collaboration, mentoring, projects and activities, and the rest.


  1. This RSS thing could be big ;-) You get some kind of keed from Pressbooks because it's WordPress, but the order is going to be by date published, not the logical book order.

    I do not know if they use the WordPress Page content type or another, but I can technically see how a plugin add on might work to walk the parent-child structure of the content (Pressbooks are organized into front matter, then "parts" with sub content as "chapters").

    OPML would make the most sense here, but not sure if the publishers of content are going to be invested into bothering (?).

  2. Sounds good to me Stephen! One question I do have w.r.t. to RSS as vehicle for distribution. Isn't RSS, or at least aren't RSS reading tools, based on the assumption the timeline is a key organising principle. It only shows the most recent elements in a feed, and RSS readers tend to not show 'old' posts, for whatever value of old is adopted. In the case of your example, my reader will not show the chapter items anymore as of tomorrow, as they are timestamped over month ago. If time is not an organising principle for the content feed, would h-feed or otherwise meaningfully marked-up HTML, or indeed OPML itself not be as useful? Though I agree that RSS, and the ability to import lists of feeds as OPML is widely distributed and adopted set-up already, so that we could do it now.

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