There’s No Place Like Home: Hosting Dynamic OER in the Library CMS

by | May 17, 2021 | 0 comments

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By Jeffrey M. Mortimore  (Discovery Services Librarian, Georgia Southern University) 

and Dawn (Nikki) Cannon-Rech  (Georgia Southern University) 

Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2

Abstract

This paper addresses how librarians at a mid-sized R2 university in the southeastern United States collaborated with instructional faculty to employ the Springshare LibGuides CMS platform to host an OER textbook.  This paper highlights LibGuides CMS’ suitability to host sophisticated OER projects.  Given that hosting is integral to any project, this paper explores issues relevant to all OER developers and managers.

Keywords:  Open Educational Resources, Content Management Systems, LibGuides CMS

Introduction

As colleges and universities increasingly engage in the creation and repurposing of Open Educational Resources (OER), libraries are stepping up to provide faculty the support they need to manage these resources, including finding, vetting, transforming, and licensing OER content.  But what about hosting? OER content comes in many forms, and faculty need the flexibility to update and revise content over time.  While institutional repositories have been widely adopted for this purpose (Ferguson 2017, 35-36), many OER projects are not well suited to document-based hosting platforms (Thompson and Muir 2020, 690;  Rolfe 2016). 

 To address this hosting challenge, librarians at Georgia Southern University collaborated with instructional faculty to employ the Springshare LibGuides CMS platform to host an OER textbook.  Unlike document-based OER, this textbook includes an array of dynamic content that can be edited by the faculty in real time over multiple semesters.  By leveraging LibGuides CMS’ permission controls and ability to host custom XML, CSS, and JS libraries, librarians and faculty adapted a technology already available to them to support this sophisticated OER hosting project. 

Background, Development, and Hosting

This project began in Spring 2019 as part of a Faculty Learning Community program centered on developing OER course materials.  One learning outcome for participating faculty was to develop a proposal for Affordable Learning Georgia’s (ALG) Textbook Transformation Grants.  These grants are sponsored by the University System of Georgia and provide funding to faculty willing to replace costly course materials by adopting, adapting, or creating OER.  The faculty leading this project teach an introductory chemistry course required of all engineering majors.  The course is intense as it condenses two semesters of content into one.  In a typical academic year, the course enrolls approximately 620 students.  The faculty teaching this course knew that many students did not purchase the required course materials due to their cost.  Also, they felt that students were disengaged from the materials as “a majority of the general chemistry textbooks are not written from the perspective of teaching Engineering Majors,” and therefore “Many students lack motivation to excel when the course objectives do not appear applicable to their academic major.”  (Narendrapurapu et al. 2019, 4)

The thought of creating OER from scratch was intimidating.  Therefore the faculty decided to adapt the Chemistry 1e textbook from OpenStax.  OpenStax is based at Rice University and provides a large catalog of high-quality, peer reviewed, OER textbooks and course materials that are free online or for very low cost to print.  OpenStax’s use of fully-open Creative Commons CC-BY licenses made this text ideal for adaptation, and strong endorsement from other chemistry faculty allayed any quality concerns.  Once the faculty had chosen this text, the task turned to exploring options for hosting and delivery.  To do this, the platform would need to accommodate multiple faculty editing the material over time.  The course averages five sections per academic year with at least three faculty teaching during any term, so they knew that they would need to integrate new images, videos, charts, graphs, problem sets, surveys, and other forms of student assessment.  Also, the platform would need to handle importing large quantities of material, be compatible with the university’s learning management system (D2L), meet accessibility requirements, and be aesthetically pleasing.  Finally, the platform would need a minimal learning curve for everyone involved.  With guidance from their subject librarian and the discovery services librarian, the faculty agreed to use LibGuides CMS to develop this project. 

Development of the OER fell into three stages: 1) proof of concept testing and migrating content, 2) revising content, and 3) cleanup and go-live.  When development began, OpenStax allowed visitors to download their XML source files for the Chemistry 1e textbook.  While the XML would need to be cleaned up and CSS recreated, migrating OpenStax’s core HTML and MathML-formatted equations appeared manageable.  Before committing, the librarians migrated a test page with equations and verified that LibGuides could display them correctly by linking the MathJax JavaScript library in the Guide Custom CSS/JS dialog.  Next, they audited a sample of the XML to ensure that extraneous HTML elements and attributes could be removed and CSS reapplied after the content was revised by the faculty. 

Once these proofs of concept were complete, the librarians downloaded and archived OpenStax’s XML source files, created a LibGuides CMS group and “shell” guide to contain the textbook, and developed a migration workflow, including steps to process the OpenStax XML before importing the resulting HTML into LibGuides’ Rich Text/HTML fields.  To do this, the librarians used Notepad++ for batch revisions to remove elements and attributes, and revise select ids and classes.  At the same time, the faculty identified the specific content to import from the Chemistry 1e textbook.  Not surprisingly, as the librarians and faculty gained experience processing the OpenStax XML, the workflow required troubleshooting and revision to accommodate variances not identified in the initial audit of the sample XML.  Fortunately, the faculty knew enough HTML and MathML to catch issues early as they reviewed the imported content.

Once the initial migration was complete, the faculty revised the imported content for several weeks.  During this time, the faculty revised or replaced text and images;  revised page names, section headers, and example problems;  updated or prepared new equations in MathML using Microsoft Word’s Equation Editor;  and created new problem sets and summative assessments.  Meanwhile, the librarians provided ongoing training and support as the faculty gained familiarity with the LibGuides interface, performed troubleshooting of the HTML and MathML, and helped with copyright questions as the faculty revised the content.  Needless to say, because the faculty worked back-and-forth between LibGuides’ Rich Text Editor and HTML view to revise the content, some revisions significantly impacted the integrity of the underlying HTML, especially on section divs and classes that would be employed to apply CSS styling.  However, by encouraging the faculty to follow consistent steps when revising the content, the librarians were able to isolate a majority of these variances and perform batch corrections using Notepad++.

Once the faculty had completed content revisions, the librarians stepped back in for a few weeks to finish cleaning up and validating the HTML, then develop and apply the new CSS.  To start, the librarians verified numbering and anchors for all sections, figures, tables, and examples;  verified that all links resolved correctly and included correct target attributes;  verified that all images were hosted on LibGuides and included alternative text;  and verified all CSS-related divs, ids, and classes.  Finally, they worked with the faculty to develop new CSS rules using the Group Custom CSS/JS dialog, then corrected any outlying content and display issues.  After setting up Google Analytics via the Guide Custom CSS/JS dialog, the textbook was ready to launch for the course.  Since its launch in early spring 2019, the textbook has been viewed over 22,500 times with each chapter page averaging over 450 views.  As of this writing, the textbook is available at:  https://georgiasouthern.libguides.com/chem1310

Lessons Learned

While the librarians and faculty experienced some challenges using LibGuides CMS, it’s not an overstatement to say that LibGuides made hosting this project possible.  Because the ALG Textbook Transformation Grant under which this project was developed did not include costs for hosting infrastructure, the faculty needed a stable hosting solution that was already available to them.  Due to the dynamic nature of much of the content, the institutional repository was not an option.  Furthermore, given the need to update and train new instructors over time, the faculty needed a platform that would be accessible, easy to learn, and include plenty of “free” technical, content, and copyright support provided by the librarians.  The minor “cons” of using LibGuides for this project are largely related to managing and updating large chunks of HTML, something for which the platform was not built.  For example, LibGuides enforces character limits on Rich Text/HTML fields, which presents a challenge when importing large blocks of HTML, some of which exceed 120,000 characters.  Also, LibGuides’ Rich Text Editor does not include a Find/Replace tool, which would be helpful for batch revising large blocks of HTML.  However, both of these issues were addressed by processing HTML in Notepad++ prior to importing it into LibGuides, then stacking Rich Text/HTML fields within content boxes to sidestep LibGuides’ character limits. 

On the other hand, the “pros” of using LibGuides have far outweighed any drawbacks.  First, using LibGuides has not incurred any new hosting costs, and the institution is unlikely to cancel its subscription.  Second, LibGuides is a familiar platform with which librarians have extensive experience, as well as it is easy to teach.  Third, using LibGuides significantly reduces the faculty’s dependence on campus IT services and leverages their access to the librarians as technical, content, and copyright experts.  Fourth, LibGuides CMS provides sufficient permission and access controls to separate OER projects from other groups and guides while providing access to the faculty and students who need it.  While LibGuides CMS offers enhanced options and makes configuring permissions easier, a standard LibGuides subscription is able to support most OER projects as well.  Lastly, LibGuides’ support of custom group and guide-level CSS and scripting, including MathJax, supports global style management and cleaner, more accessible HTML.

Lessons learned from the faculty perspective include the importance of determining the faculty’s HTML skills prior to revising content.  The faculty involved in this project were generally able to troubleshoot and correct issues with the source HTML, and they were quick to consult with the librarians when they encountered problems.  Without these skills, the faculty would have required far more intervention and support from the librarians.  Librarians should evaluate these skills early to determine what impact they may have on their ability to facilitate the project.  All the same, the faculty member’s and students’ engagement with the final product further support using LibGuides CMS.  Faculty and students were familiar with LibGuides and used the platform frequently for research assistance.  For this reason, the learning curve to navigate course materials was very low.  Also, platform-level accessibility was managed by Springshare and the librarians, which provided ease of mind to the faculty as they created and adapted guide content.  The look and feel of the final product also satisfied the faculty’s desire for an aesthetically appealing product and has caught the eye of others in and outside the institution.  For example, faculty instructors love the static URLs and anchors generated for specific pages and content, as this simplifies directing students to the exact material being covered in class or on exams.

Conclusion

Overall, using LibGuides CMS to host dynamic OER has been a positive experience and has solved a number of technical issues that would make employing a text-oriented institutional repository untenable.  While repositories offer notable advantages for version control, long-term access, and preservation, the traditional collection priorities of academic libraries must be held in balance with curricular needs as well as students’ need for ready access to free or low cost course materials.  Just as for librarians creating and updating their own instructional guides, faculty who employ dynamic, frequently-updated OER for their courses deserve the same flexibility and ease of use from their hosting platform. 

References

Ferguson, Christine L.  2017.  “Open Educational Resources and Institutional Repositories.”  Serials Review 43, no. 1: 34-38.  https://doi.org/10.1080/00987913.2016.1274219

Narendrapurapu, Beulah, Debanjana Ghosh, Arpita Saha, Leah Williams, and Dawn Cannon-Rech.  2019.  “Textbook Transformation Grants, Round Fourteen (2019-2020): 468.”  Grant application, accessed February 7, 2021.  https://affordablelearninggeorgia.org/assets/documents//468_GASouthern_Proposal_18500.pdf

Rolfe, Vivien.  2016.  “Web Strategies for the Curation and Discovery of Open Educational Resources.”  Open Praxis 8, no. 4: 297-312. 

Thompson, Seth D., and Adrienne Muir.  2020.  “A Case Study Investigation of Academic Library Support for Open Educational Resources in Scottish Universities.”  Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 52, no. 3: 685-693.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0961000619871604  

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