September 1, 1997 Volume 7, Issue 5

Creating an Online Textbook

For Fun and Profit?

Actually, it is not all that much fun. And there is no profit. But the process of creating an online textbook does have its rewards, and Newsletter editor Susan Hagan asked us to write about our experiences in creating our online textbook entitled Drugs, Brains and Behavior ( ).

Most of the material that is included in the current iteration of this textbook was previously published in hard copy (Hamilton, L. W. & Timmons, C. R., Principles of Behavioral Pharmacology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990). Our recollection is that creating this textbook in traditional format was not all fun and profit either.

After the text went out of print, we began to entertain the idea of transferring it in an online format. But first, we had to go through the somewhat lengthy process of getting the copyrights assigned back to the authors. There was nothing especially complex about this, but it took several months to work through the corporate structure and find the person who could do this. Fortunately, we had created virtually all of the original artwork ourselves, so we did not face the daunting task of going back to a long list of publishers and authors for new permissions. For those of you who are currently planning to write a traditional textbook, you may want to consider writing something into your contract and permission requests to cover the possibility of future (or concurrent) electronic publishing rights.

Finally, the copyrights were in order, we had found the diskettes that held the original text files for the book, and had collected all of the graphics files for the artwork. We had a version of Corel WordPerfect© that includes simple procedures to translate documents into the file.htm format for the World Wide Web and an updated version of Lotus Freelance© that could add color and other features to our original line drawings. We had arranged our schedules for Thursdays at home to work on the project. Now, all we had to do was translate the files and upload them to the central computer and our project would be complete. Life was good.

The file for Chapter 1 was loaded into WordPerfect©, and with a few simple commands it was miraculously transformed from chap1.wpd into chap1.htm, and we excitedly loaded it into Netscape© to view it. It was probably 95 percent accurate, but cleaning up the remaining 5 percent was tedious. Once the document was cleaned up, there was still a lot of work to do. All of those italicized key words had to be linked to the glossary, the headings in the chapter outline at the beginning of the document had to be linked to the appropriate locations within the document, and the several dozen references in the chapter had to be linked to the appropriate citations in the bibliography. When we finally got good at it (this did not happen with chapter 1), this process, even with the use of numerous macros, required a full person day per chapter at the keyboard.

The links to the glossary and bibliography were still more complex because each of the several hundred entries had to be identified as a target so the text could be linked to it. These conversions of glossary and reference lists from word processor text into the appropriate file.htm formats were equivalent in workload to at least two or three chapters of text each. It was at this point that we began to realize that having all of the material already written was a mixed blessing--many of these formatting details can be handled very easily from the keyboard if they are done as the text is initially entered. (Did we mention that years ago when the original text was being put together, we had to translate the text files from Commodore to IBM because technology was progressing faster than we were writing?)

Now for the figures (requiring still more links in the text, of course), which had been created on Freelance©. We happen to like Freelance©, but the people at the aid station seemed a bit taken aback by the term, and as I recall, a crowd began to gather to have a look at this guy who was looking for this ancient piece of software in Windows© format. Ultimately, Drew University had a copy and we were overjoyed to see our figures brought to life with color in the new file.drw format. But, of course, the World Wide Web does not recognize this format, so we had to translate the files into something more compatible. Sometimes this conversion resulted in a fuzzy figure that lost all of its detail, other times it resulted in a figure that looked an awful lot like it had been drawn on an old computer, and it was always either too large or too small. By the time we figured out whether we should be converting the file.drw files into file.jpg or file.gif, and how to get them to look like they did on the original screen, we were ready to pull our hair.out! Once again, many of the problems of standard sizing, links, and so forth are easier if they are done as the artwork is being created.

Finally, there were the little details of figure captions (more links), a list of figure titles, easy links to the previous or next figure, and of course, a safety net so some unsuspecting reader would not get trapped in figure-land with no clear pathway back to the text.

Ultimately, we ended up with several hundred(!) files in file.htm, file.txt, file.gif format that included intricate links from text to figures to definitions to references to outside sources in a manner that seemed largely transparent to the user. Now we simply had to upload it onto the central system for access by anybody in the world. Oops! Not enough space.

When we contacted the central computer people who are in charge of space allocation and asked for an increased allotment to put a textbook online, staff members at both universities (Drew and Rutgers) responded with the question that had already crept into our own minds: "Why would you want to do that?"

They happily agreed to increase our space allotments when we explained that the material could be easily accessed by our students from any computer terminal, that the cost to students for textbooks could be dramatically reduced, that the graphics were now readily available for classroom use in one of the new "smart" classrooms, that colleagues and students in other universities around the world would have access to the work, that it could be a "living" textbook with chapters being continuously updated, expanded, linked to other resources--yada yada. All of these arguments are beginning to sound a little trite, but they remain true.

We were up and running with an online text!

(As an example of how a reverse spin can be put on almost anything, we were approached by a textbook editor last week, via e-mail, to inquire if we wanted to publish this book in hard-copy.)

Several of our colleagues have visited the site and given us the socially appropriate "nice job", quickly followed by a mystified expression and the question, "But how do you make any money on this?" Our flip answer is that "We never made any money on the original hard copy!" Although not completely inured to a whiff of the pilf, we have (fortunately) never planned for our textbook writing to be a for-profit venture-- we view it as teaching.

When we finally reached the end of the project and had the textbook online, a whole bunch of Thursdays had passed by. There had been at least as many frustrations, pitfalls and delays as one encounters when working through a publisher to create a traditional hard-copy text. But both of us had independently reached the same conclusion and had found an unexpected reward: This is the very best work that we have done.

Leonard W. Hamilton
Department of Psychology, Rutgers University

C. Robin Timmons
Department of Psychology, Drew University, Madison, NJ

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