Textbooks in a Digital Age: The History of Canada Online

Digital technologies are changing the way we read history. With the popularization of consumer electronic e-readers like Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo, and (yes) iPad, many textbook publishers are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to reach digital reading audiences.

Unfortunately, the Kindle DX digital textbook pilot program at Princeton had a rocky start and further reviews haven’t been favourable. Some universities are now experimenting with Apple’s iPad as a digital reader for the classroom. Many of the complaints about these digital readers, however, tend to focus on the hardware and not the e-book software. Obviously the hardware plays a significant role in the digital reading experience, but it is on the software side where we are likely to see the most exciting innovation in the development of e-textbooks.

Northern Blue Publishing is a digital textbook publisher and e-learning company that seems to be making a genuine effort to harness the advantages of digital technologies for textbooks. Rather than simply replicating a print reading experience on screen, Northern Blue uses wiki-based publishing software to produce customizable textbook offerings for schools and libraries with print-on-demand, DVD or CD publishing options, and flexible licensing. This not only provides school boards and educators affordable textbooks but it uses the advantages of digital publishing over print publishing to produce a more customizable digital reading experience for teachers and students.

The History of Canada Online is one such project that illustrates many of the advantages of digital technologies for textbook publishing. Dr. Alastair Sweeny from Northern Blue answered a few questions about this project:

Sean Kheraj: What is The History of Canada Online project all about?

Alastair Sweeny: We are producing a line of digital textbooks as a business (and a passion).

SK: What are the origins of The History of Canada Online? How did this project start?

AS: It goes back to work we did in the late 1980s, specifically Canadisk, Canada’s first multimedia CD-ROM.  This contained a timeline of Canadian history plus a digital library and image base, all indexed.  We did it as a joint venture with Encyclopedia  Britannica, who were also selling Compton’s Multimedia CD-ROM at the time.

When Britannica flamed out, due to competition from MS Encarta, we bought out their interest, continued on our own, and when teacher and McGraw-Hill author Nick Brune approached us, we pulled together a full scale online textbook portal.

SK: Who is the main audience for HCO?

AS: Middle secondary to early college.  It could be used as supplement for a first year university survey course.  We are doing a junior version as well.  See our current line here:

SK: Can you explain how you are using the wiki technology for HCO?

AS: We use Mediawiki builds, but customize the software, page design and so on.  It is very good, robust open source software, and it automatically indexes new pages and changes, and sends changes out as RSS if people want to subscribe.

Wikitext is fairly easy to learn and our authors are soon comfortable with writing online. Students who use Wikipedia also find it very easy to use.  But under our licences, users can mix media.  The NWT government for example are creating CD’s with the chapters because some of the far north village schools don’t have Web access, but they do have computers with optical drives.

SK: Where might this work go in the future?

AS: The portals are flexible and easy to update.  We hope to get more and more teacher and student input in future. We are also producing ebook apps that will be free to subscribers.

Take a look at The History of Canada Online and let me know what you think. Is this a good model for textbook publishing? Do you know of other digital textbook projects doing similar work? Let me know in the comments section.


Reaching a Popular Audience Workshop: Wrap-Up

Last week, we hosted a writing workshop for history and geography graduate students at the University of British Columbia called “Reaching a Popular Audience” sponsored by the Network in Canadian History & Environment and The History Education Network. The intent of the workshop was to introduce graduate students to some core skills for writing newspaper op-ed articles and magazine queries. We brought in an excellent group of students from Western Canada, including students from BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Tina Loo, Laura Madokoro, and Mary Lynn Young came in to sit on a Q&A panel about their own experiences as writers and editors for magazines and newspapers. Tina writes a bi-monthly column for Canada’s History (formerly The Beaver), Laura is an occasional op-ed contributor to Globe & Mail, and Mary Lynn is the director of UBC’s journalism school as well as a former newspaper reporter and editor. This session was especially useful for our discussion of some of the bigger issues surrounding academia and popular publishing as well as some really important “nuts and bolts” issues about newspaper and magazine writing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I led an afternoon session on academic blogging. I wanted to thank everyone who sent me comments in advance of the session (thanks Shane!). Hopefully I laid out a convincing case for the place of academic blogging for history and geography scholars. I know I convinced some of the participants to start up new blogs and further develop existing blogs. Here are links to a couple of the participants’ blogs:

Can Enviro Rock?

Merle Massie, A Place in History

We hope that some of the participants will eventually publish an op-ed or magazine article in the future. At the very least, we started an excellent conversation about scholarly communication and the ways in which academics can mobilize their research to reach new audiences and perhaps serve a broader public interest.

Historians and Academic Blogging

On Friday afternoon, I will be leading a session at the Reaching a Popular Audience Writing Workshop at UBC about blogging and online self-publishing. Historians and academics have been blogging for many years now, but it is still a generally uncommon practice in academia. However, online publishing through academic blogging can be an incredibly useful medium for disseminating ideas, research findings, and opinions that are not necessarily suited to monograph or journal publication (the dominant forms of academic publishing for historians). It can also serve a very important public history function, providing historians with a means to communicate to readers outside of academia.

Having run this blog for several months now, I can attest to the utility of this medium, but I am no expert. If you have any comments or suggestions that you would like to add to this topic of historians and academic blogging, please post them as comments here and I’ll pass them along during the session on Friday.

Here are some of the additional resources we’ll be consulting as part of this session at the writing workshop:

CNET Real Deal Podcast Episode 198: Beginner’s Guide to Blogging

Academic blogs: Connecting People and Ideas
From the Career Corner at Congress 2009 in Ottawa


Cliopatria’s History Blog Roll


Dan Cohen, “Professors, Start Your Blogs” Digital Humanities Blog 21 August 2006


E-Books and the Future of Reading

As environmental historians, we do a lot of reading and writing. Readers of this blog (and many other scholars) are beginning to do more of their reading in a digital format. If we consider how much digital reading we do each day, including websites and email, it is obvious that this new medium of writing has become a significant component of academic work.

The development of mass market consumer digital reading devices, including the iPhone, Kindle, and Nook will have implications for how scholars read and write. The Digital Campus podcast has been covering this subject a lot lately and CNET’s Reporters’ Roundtable recently discussed the growth of digital reading. Have a listen to find out more about the strengths and limitations of these digital technologies for knowledge mobilization.

Reporters’ Roundtable 8: Future of the book

Digital Campus Episode 46: Theremin Dreams

Finding a Wider Audience for Historical Research

Academic historical research does not usually reach a very wide audience. Some of the best work in Canadian and environmental history, produced by the country’s top scholars, can almost only be found in the pages of scholarly journals and university press monographs. From time to time, a historian will break out and appear on the news as an “expert” or write a short article for a popular publication.

Next month, the Network in Canadian History & Environment will be sponsoring an event at the University of Western Ontario for history graduate students on writing for a popular audience. Graduate students are invited to sign up for this workshop in order enhance their writing skills and develop a proposal for an article to pitch to a newspaper or magazine editor.

It looks like NiCHE is even going to provide some funding to applicants. Check out the poster (PDF) for this event and sign up.

Will Twitter Kill My Chance of Getting an Academic Job?

Remember a couple of years ago when there was a lot of discussion about employers using internet-based social networks, like Facebook and MySpace, to screen job applicants? We were advised to use these so-called Web 2.0 tools cautiously to avoid the possibility of a potential employer discovering embarrassing photos or inappropriate comments. But was this ever relevant in the academic hiring process?

A recent article on the “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog takes on this question. Dean Dad confesses to never having witnessed a hiring committee investigate a candidate’s Facebook or MySpace page. “I’ve spent most of this decade in administration,” says Dean Dad “and I have literally never seen social media emerge as an issue.”

This is just one administrator’s experience, but his testimony does suggest that perhaps the use of internet-based social networking tools might not be so fatal to one’s academic job search. If Dean Dad has yet to find a case in which the use of Facebook, Twitter, or blogging has harmed an applicant’s candidacy, I would be very interested to know if the use of any of these applications has helped someone land an academic position.

The Place to Start: Bailey’s Open Access Bibliography

I really should have found this source sooner. Charles W. Bailey’s Open Access Bibliography: Liberating Scholarly Literature with E-Prints and Open Access Journals is the best place to start for historians (or anyone else) looking to learn about open access and scholarly publishing.

According to the description of the book, it features citations for “1,300 selected English-language books, conference papers (including some digital video presentations), debates, editorials, e-prints, journal and magazine articles, news articles, technical reports, and other printed and electronic sources that are useful in understanding the open access movement’s efforts to provide free access to and unfettered use of scholarly literature.” This impressive bibliography offers a wide array of sources on subjects ranging from major debates over web publishing to the history of E-Prints.

You could likely spend years pouring over all the different publications on open access and scholarly publishing to be found in Open Access Bibliography. I’ll be taking a peek at a handful of relevant sources for Canadian and environmental historians to review for the Notes on Knowledge Mobilization page.